Promises

by Marie

Part X

Friday

(Continued)

"Bill."

"Hmmm?"

"Wake up."

"Awww, Pat. Wha-a-a-t?"

"Come on. Get up. We have to get back. I need to get to Maryland."

"Aw-w-ww, give me just another hour, babe, okay?"

"Bill."

"Please, babe. Just a little while longer."

"All right, another hour, but then we have to go."

She pushed back the covers and started to slide over to get up herself, but a tree limb of an arm landed on her, effectively stopping her movements. It wrapped itself around her midsection and pulled her back into that trunk of a body. "Don't go anywhere, babe. Stay here with me."

"But, Bill."

"Come on, ple-e-ease, I need to know you're here, close to me. I won't rest if I can't feel you here with me."

Pat lie down, backing her body into his, allowing him to fully enfold her.

He deserved to rest. In her grandmother's room, he refused to get into that bed with her; he stayed by her side but in the chair. It wasn't until she brought him to her old room, the one recently vacated by Jennifer, that she got him to lie down where he immediately fell into the kind of sleep his presence finally allowed her to enjoy after her long period of restlessness and uncertainty.

But one hour, and it would be time to go.

... or more, if it turns out he needs it, Patricia.

That is the least you can do for him... for such a fine man as he....

Yes, I know that it is. He is....

Sliding the fingers of her left hand between his, she closed her eyes and held on.

 

Very Early Afternoon

In the parlor with the door closed, where they'd gone after leaving her grandfather and his guest talking in the front hall, J.J. allowed herself to be fully checked out by her cousin. After one slow circle around, Betsy Bach stopped her inspection. Placing both hands on her hips, she looked up into that Jennifer-like face.

"Okay, now I see how and why I got left out."

"Left out of what, Bets?"

"Out of the 'gorgeous' genes, that's what. You know, I always wondered how Jen got to take so many of them that there were almost none left for me when I came along. I see now that she snatched up enough for herself and to have a bunch of them left over for you when you showed up."

J.J. pulled Betsy into a tight hug. "Oh-h-h, you always say stuff like that, downplaying yourself and how gorgeous you are. I don't know anybody who can make me feel so good just because they come into a room." 

Then easing up her hold, she allowed just enough room between them to briefly touch her forehead to Betsy's. "I'm serious. Sometimes I just think of you, and it makes me smile and feel good all over. Jeez, I've missed you."

She meant what she said. In her eyes, Betsy had always been her cute, funny, effervescent, and incredibly smart cousin, a person she admired for her constant optimism and strong, contagiously exuberant spirit.

In response, Betsy returned the hug and then leaned back to look up into J.J.'s face again. "I've missed you, too, baby girl. So long has it been?"

"About two years, I think. The last time was when you came to California that time when my mother... when... well, when she got sick that time."

As J.J.'s voice trailed off and her face momentarily clouded, Betsy backed out of the embrace and took J.J.'s hand to lead her over to the couch where they both sat down.

"That still bothers you to talk about it, J.?"

J.J. hung her head to avoid looking directly into Betsy's shiny, but intense and probing dark brown eyes. "A little. I think it always will."

Still holding J.J.'s hand, Betsy squeezed it hard and then issued her verbal reprimand. "And what did I tell you then about beating yourself up over that? It wasn't your fault. I can't believe you're still agonizing over this. It's been two years, J."

With someone else, J.J, might have brushed past the tense moment in an effort to keep the hurt private, or ignored it all together and moved on to some other line of discourse, but it was different with Betsy. There over two decades between them in age, but that gap didn't ever seem to matter when they talked together. Betsy, her earliest baby sitter outside of Marie and Mrs. Barnett, the twins' mother, and her exclusive sitter when she'd been on the road with her mother, had always been more like a supportive, trusted older sister when it came to opening up and sharing confidences. Growing up, there were times that she could share even more with Betsy than she could with her mother. In certain situations, Betsy's more removed position allowed her a greater measure of objectivity.

"Bets, you, of all people, know how I am when it comes to my mother. I'm better about that incident now than I was when it first went down. I've grown up some since then, but I won't ever forget it. In fact, I don't think I'm supposed to forget or to let it stop bothering me."

Betsy tipped her head and shrugged. "Yes, I guess I do get it when it you put it that way. You always were a deep thinker for one so young. We do mess up sometimes in ways that change us. There are those kinds of things that  happen that indeed aren't meant to be forgotten. But J, they're not there for us to keep beating ourselves up over them. They stay with us to keep us on track, to remind us that the good and pleasant path we're currently on could quite easily have been otherwise and might just switch up on us if we aren't mindful of where we choose to place our feet. "

J.J. nodded but didn't say anything. There wasn't any need to; she understood exactly where Betsy was coming from. Neither of them had to elaborate on their lines of thought. Just as Betsy acknowledged J.J.'s lingering internal torment over that very bad place in her life, J.J. was well aware of Betsy's past struggles with negative self-image and her near-fatal battle with drugs.

Betsy's troubles with amphetamines and her resultant heart attack happened a few years before J.J. was born, so J.J. didn't necessarily have to have been let in on that darker part of her cousin's life. It could easily have been swept under the rug, and kept away from her. However, it was Betsy who told her about all of it when she flew into LA upon hearing that Jennifer had been hospitalized for pneumonia and found J.J. almost comatose with guilt over having run away, causing her mother to come straight out of a shower to look for her in the cold night air. Despite there being no actual physical connection between Jennifer's illness and J.J.'s misdeeds, there was nothing J.J. could do at that time to help herself or anything anyone had been able to do to make it better for her. Nothing her father said, nothing Dr. Kate said, and nothing Pa or her Aunt Pat told her could set things right. Not even what her mother said to her, once she woke up, could lift that lingering, stifling black cloud. It was Betsy, sharing her own struggles and eye-opening revelations, who really helped her through it and who put her on the road back to herself.

No need to elaborate on any of it at all.

In her usual upbeat fashion, Betsy slapped her palms to her thighs and bounced the conversation from where it had gone right back up to where it had been. "Look at you, J.! You're so tall. You are standing way over me now."

"Well, that's not really a hard thing to do. You are kind of short, relatively speaking."

" 'Relatively speaking'. Good one, J., considering most of you are tall. But looking at you now, it's hard to believe that I used to carry you around in my arms. Jen told me you were almost as tall as she is, but seeing that you are is another thing entirely." She stopped speaking for a moment and slightly cocked her head. "Is that a head cold I hear?"

"Little bit of one. It's on its way out, though. You've talked with my mother recently?"

"Um-hmm."

Betsy pressed a hand to J.J.'s forehead and then both hands to her cheeks. "No fever, that's good."

J.J. sucked her teeth in exasperation and pulled her face from Betsy's gentle grip. "I told you it's on its way out. I've had it a couple of days. They only last for a few when I get them. It's no big deal."

"I could hear it in your voice, so I had to check. Your mother and Pat  came to the house the other day to see Father. I asked where you were. Jen told me that you didn't come because you'd stayed in the city to go shopping with your friend."

"Oh, yeah, that day, " J.J. recalled aloud, surprised at how completely that event slipped her mind. "I forgot she said that was where she was going."

But then she really hadn't had reason to think about it. So much else had happened since then. Despite the fact that she hadn't asked her, before or after the trip, the Duchess hadn't volunteered any specifics. In retrospect, that stood out as a glaring omission on both their parts. And, come to think of it, Pat hadn't said anything about it either.

So why they did go there? Her mother said that she and Pat had "business" in Long Island that day. What kind of business that involved Betsy's father? Benjamin Bach, a learned professor of some renown, was knowledgeable about a great many things. He was well-traveled, and he was very well-connected. What business could they have had that involved him? Was it that mutual writing project they'd been working on? After all, his specialty was literature and languages. If so, what was Benjamin's connection to what they were doing? If he was in on it, what part was he playing? What did he think of it? She and her mother had talked a couple of times since then, and that project wasn't really a secret. After all, she'd brought the seeds of it down from the guest house attic to her mother. Maybe it just hadn't come up and she was reading too much into it....

Sometimes being a teenager and trying to have a life got in the way of paying attention to and asking questions- at the right time and of the right people- about things she later found out she should have been.

It was all clicking in and out so fast that wasn't until she heard her voice that J.J. noticed Betsy's unblinking stare.

"Why I do believe there's smoke coming out of your ears, Justine Hart."

J.J.'s hand shot to her lips to cover her shame-faced grin. "You know me way too well."

"It's been that way all your life, girl. That mind of yours has always gone twenty miles a minute. I remember the very first time I saw you. So tiny and fussy and precious. You were only a week or so old, and already you were making faces like my favorite cousin. Jen's always been smart, and nosy- a real quick thinker, so right away in my mind I figured that you'd be all of that like her, too. And it turns out, you are."

"She's really your favorite cousin, Bets?"

"Absolutely. Always. She's been and is my role model. If it weren't for her and for the people she keeps around her, I don't know where I'd be right now. Dead most likely."

Betsy's words cinched at J.J.'s heart causing her to make a quick grab for Betsy's hand. "Don't say that."

Winding her fingers through J.J.'s, Betsy held her ground. "It's true, though. I don't shy away from reality any more. Things are what they are. You can fight them, you can give in and let them take you, or you can learn to deal with what is. Me, I've chosen to deal."

J.J. relaxed. That made complete sense to her and to her sensibilities.

"Okay. I understand now."

Switching gears again, Betsy appeared to look around for something and then asked, "So where is Jen? I get the feeling she's not here."

"She's not. She and Daddy are at Aunt Pat's, helping to get set up for the wedding. My friend Marnie, too."

At the mention of Marnie, Betsy and her bright smile focused back on J.J. "Marnie. Pat's baby. What a little pistol. I can't wait to see her again for myself. Is she still adorable?"

"Very."

"Still cursing?"

"Got busted for it just last night."

"By whom?"

"My mother, as we were coming out of the bedroom closet. See, my mother had come into my room upstairs real quiet while Marnie and I were inside the closet, talking. She took a seat in the chair without us knowing it, so we were shocked to come out and find her sitting there waiting for us; who knows what she might have heard. It made us- well me- sort of jump to see her there. I backed up into Marnie, or Marnie ran into me; either way, that's how she caught Marnie right as the words were coming out of her mouth."

Betsy started laughing. "I'd have paid big bucks to have witnessed that. Nothing like catching kids in the act."

"You would know, Ms. Headmistress."

 "And J.J. Hart's ex-babysitter. Yes, I would know. I've had plenty of practice at catching little girls in the act. So, is Marnie still into boys?"

"Still, but thankfully they're not yet into her."

It took a moment for it to register, but when Betsy caught the meaning behind what J.J. was actually saying, her chuckle gave over to a surprised hoot which ignited J.J.'s own hearty laugh.

"N-n-now that s-s-side of you comes from that f-f-f-father of yours," Betsy stuttered through her guffaws. "T-t-that is Jonathan Hart all the way. He is the past grand master of double entendre, and I can certainly see you've been s-s-successfully apprenticed."

Beaming at that very high compliment, J.J. managed to say through her giggles, "My inheritance."

Betsy patted her chest and then fanned with one hand while she wiped at her eyes with the other. "You got me with that one, girl. You really are growing up."

Snatching a few tissues from the box on the side table, J.J. handed some to Betsy and kept one for herself. It was a couple more minutes before either of them were composed enough to talk again.

"So J., since we've got everyone else's logistics charted, how come you aren't at Pat's?"

That was not a corner J.J. wanted to get backed into, not even by Betsy, who if she hung around long enough would eventually find out on her own the reason she had stayed behind. But when or if she did, there wouldn't be time for Betsy to rag on her at length about it or ask a whole lot of questions. With a small wave of her hand, J.J. casually breezed around the question and the unspoken issue itself.

"Ahhh, there are enough of them over there to do whatever needs to be done. They have all the design people, coordinators, and all of that. Too many people to stay out of the way of and too much hustle and bustle for me. You know that's not my kind of thing. I'd rather be here by myself, doing what I want to do on my own."

"Sounds like you. You always were one to enjoy her own company. When you were little, you were always somewhere off by yourself, looking at books, or listening to music and singing and dancing, or getting into something you shouldn't have been. I still remember the incident with the Mr. Bubble."

"You aren't ever going to let me forget that one, are you?"

"It was too good, J. A classic. Like something off the television."

Then Betsy leaned in, lowering her voice some. "So look, as nosy and insightful as I know you to be, you have to have the inside track on the story. It's been killing me ever since I last saw her. What's up with Pat?"

Hesitating, taking the moment to get her poker face set, J.J. responded with a question of her own. "How do you mean?"

Betsy closed her eyes. "Oh no, no, no, no, little one. This is you and me talking. Pat and Jen are no where around to overhear us, and I have covered for you too many times in your life for you to leave me hanging. Again, I refer to the Mr. Bubble incident. If it  weren't for me and housekeeping... gir-r-r-r-l, if Jen had come back to the room and seen the mess you- uh,uh, no you don't. You know exactly what I'm talking about with Pat. Give it up."

"Okay, okay, first tell me what you know, then, if I can, I'll fill you in."

"Oh, so we're going to play tit-for-tat here?"

"Gotta give some to get some, Bets. You're the one who first taught me that concept. You remember, 'act nice equals chocolate chip cookies'? If you don't, I do. Evidently this time I have something you want. Like I said, tell me what you know."

The resigned expression slowly crossing Betsy's face spoke before the sighed question came out of her mouth. "Sometimes the teacher teaches too well, doesn't she, J.?"

J.J. raised that single eyebrow. "You did your practicum on me; I helped you earn that Ph.D. you now have. You owe me big for that, so you play your hand first."

"You look just like your father right now."

"Thank you."

Then Betsy, honed in on her pony-tailed cousin's face and slowly grinned as if she were remembering something. "Still doing your 'homeworks', J.?"

"Yeah, but it's for real now, not pretend. Not where I'm scribbling in tablets trying to mimic someone. And there's no 's' on the word now either, although there probably should be considering the quantity of it that I get assigned to do. Look, don't change the subject." J.J. wiggled her long fingers in Betsy's direction. "Give."

For another drawn-out moment, Betsy stared at J.J. as if trying to decide what to do. Then she gave in. "Okay, well, she was acting weird at the house."

"Weird how?"

"I don't know. Sort of antsy. Edgier than usual. Just not quite herself. A bit... uptight, for lack of a more fitting description. Then she cut out of the club that night, and made Jen have to go after her."

This time it was J.J. who sprang forward, leaning in to latch onto Betsy's arm again, her questions fired off one after the other in hushed, conspiring tones. "You were at the club, at the bachelorette party with them? The whole time? So like, were there strippers and stuff? Did they like, you know, take all of it off or did they stop at the g-string? Were they cute?"

Betsy's mouth fell open. "You are sixteen years old!  What in the world do you know about clubs, strippers, and g-strings, J.J. Hart?"

"I've seen pictures. I read. I have a great-aunt named Sabrina and another aunt, named Marcia, who writes seriously dirty books that my Aunt Sabrina lets me read. Besides, I live and hang out in LA.; you learn stuff. So back to the strippers and dancers, what did my mother do? What did Pat do? Was Aunt Marcia up there shaking it with them? I bet she was. O-o-o-o-oh, Bets, don't leave a girl hanging here. Don't do payback on me right now. Not on this. Come on, plee-e-e-ease tell me."

"Uh-uh," Betsy said, visibly struggling against laughing at J.J.'s excitement and unbridled naughty curiosity. "Don't consider this payback; that's not what this is, but you aren't getting me into trouble with Jen and Pat. You forget, they used to kick my butt on a regular basis for getting out of line, asking too many questions, or talking too much. I only have one life to live, and I've thinned that out considerably doing my own dumb stuff. I might be grown now, but in their books, I'm still not as grown as they are. I tell you what went on at the club that night and some of it happens to leak out, I'll be up the creek with both of them for sure with no paddle or boat to speak of."

"Come on, Bets. I won't say anything. Honest. I don't talk about what people tell me."

"No, way, my little adolescent cousin. I put it in you, and under the right set of circumstances, Jen could squeeze it right back out. Like you said, I know how you and your mother are better than anyone. Maybe after you're twenty-one or so I can fill you in, and even then I'll probably still have to seriously consider my personal safety. All I'll say for now is a good time was being had by all until Pat took off. So, where did she go? What was wrong with her?"

Huffing in dejection, giving up on grilling a person experience said she had little chance of breaking down, especially on the subject at hand, J.J. went ahead and gave Betsy the only answer she could.

"I don't know. I honestly don't know much of anything."

Betsy's eyes went wide with disbelief, and she threw up her hands. "What? I held out for that? I know you did not have me negotiating and waiting all this time for that little bit of nothing."

"That's all I have. For real.  All I know is my mother came back to Aunt Pat's looking for her, but Aunt Pat wasn't there. Evidently, she'd gone somewhere else when she left you all at the club. I guess my mother knew where to look for her because she took off, too, once she found out that Aunt Pat wasn't at the Manhattan apartment. Then my mother didn't turn up again until the next day when she and Marnie flew in together without Aunt Pat from-... say..."

"Say what?"

J.J. squinted as she idly scratched at her the band that held her ponytail. Her spoken words came slowly. "It occurs to me that Marnie never did say exactly where they were."

No, Marnie hadn't. When talking about it in the bedroom after Marnie arrived at Briarwood that past Wednesday afternoon, they got diverted from that topic by the discovery of the memory card being gone from the camera. The farthest Marnie got was saying that she and Bill had gone to Long Island. Where that tidbit was currently taking her didn't make sense, but J.J. asked anyway.

"Aunt Pat didn't go to your father's house?"

"Would I be sitting here asking you about her if that were the case? I've been at Father's since last weekend, so if she had shown up there, I'd already know all I need to know. Or have a black eye because Pat hit me in it for badgering her. What makes you ask me that?"

"Well, Marnie said she and Uncle Bill went to Aunt Pat somewhere in Long Island. She didn't say exactly where, though."

Betsy eased her body back against the couch cushions, folding her arms across her ample bosom. From that, J.J. could tell she'd struck pay dirt with her on some level.

"What? Tell me. Bets, I can see you thinking."

Betsy spoke as if she were doing it through a mental haze. "I'm thinking that if Marnie said that's where she and Jen were coming from, then Pat probably went her grandmother's place- well, it's her place now, but I bet that's where she went."

"Aunt Pat has a house in Long Island? Where?"

"Oyster Bay. An estate, I understand. It's where she was born."

"On that estate? In the house?"

"That's what I'm told."

"So how come I don't know about that?"

"Can't say, J. She's never spoken to me about it. Neither has Jen. It was Father who told me, just like it was he who told me about this house and of your grandmother."

At the mention of her grandmother, J.J. immediately dammed the storm surge of considerations triggered by Betsy's disclosure. She scooted closer as Betsy continued explaining.

"Jen has been in my life for all of my life. I think she was drawn to me because I was her closest relative that wasn't an adult, and then she stuck with me because she could see I'd need it. During my very young life, Jen was living at school, then she was on her own in New York, which put her close to me whether I was living at home with Father or away at school myself. Regardless of where either of us were, she always made it her business to keep up with me.

"See, I was a little girl, nine years old, when my mother got sick and passed away. By then, Jen was grown up, but we became even closer once my mother was gone. Even though I had my mother's sisters, who kind of assisted Father with my upbringing, Jen took me over. She was the one I really turned to. She looked out for me in the way that mattered to me, like a big sister might do. We've never talked about it, but I think she was really drawn to me- we were drawn together- by our loss even though mine came years after hers. Her mother was killed in the car accident before I was born; I never knew her, only of her.

"Even though we've been through some stuff together, well, she's seen me through some things, and with all we've talked about over the years, I don't really remember Jen talking much about her mother or of her time residing in this house. I came by what I know about this house, Pat's house, and about your grandmother, Suzanne, through my father."

This was yet another one of those things that J.J. found herself astounded by, one of those things she'd never had reason to consider. That lately life seemed to be constantly surprising her, fleetingly crossed her mind.

"So, are you saying that in all this time, you haven't ever been to this house?"

Betsy shook her head. "Never had reason to until now. When I was little, Stephen would come to visit Father at our house on Long Island. I think back then, your grandfather was living abroad, and this house was closed down most of the time. When I was a kid, Jen came to me, or she sent for me to come to her. By the time Stephen returned to live in this house, I was away at school, Jen was on her own, and I would go to her where ever she was, which wasn't ever here. Then when Jen got married and moved to California, I would go out there to see her, Jonathan, and Max. I've heard a lot about this place, seen many pictures of it, but I've never been here."

At that point, J.J. stood up and extended her hand. "Then please, let me show you around."

Betsy grabbed hold and pulled herself up. "I thought you'd never ask."

Jonathan remained in the doorway until the car made the turn in the drive and then pulled off on its way down to the front gate.

"I think you shot a huge hole through the weekend plans," Jennifer said from behind him as her hands began a mini massage on his tense shoulders. "They were not expecting you to do what you did, and to handle it with such swiftness."

He closed the door and turned around to kiss the tip of her nose. He slid his arm around her waist. "I'm no fool. If they thought they were going to be holing up unsupervised, away from where I could see what was going on, they could forget it."

Jennifer snaked her arm underneath Jonathan's and hooked a finger in one of his belt loops as they started down the hall. "What's Pat's going to say about it once she gets here? This isn't what she was expecting. Not to mention, J.J., although I don't believe she'll have a whole lot to say against it."

"In this instance it doesn't matter to me what Pat says, and it's because of J.J. that this is the way it's going to be, and that's all there is to it. To quote someone near and dear to my heart when she's dealing with that latter young person at those times she's trying to get out of hand, 'I am not having it'."

The quote, topped off by his not quite successful attempt at assuming a feminine voice to utter it, had her laughing. "Jonathan, that was so wrong of you."

"Maybe so, but I meant what I said. It might have been quite a while back for me, but I do clearly remember that there's a certain degree of insanity that comes with being seventeen and male, especially if there aren't any immediate checks and balances in place. In this case, I intend to be both the balance and the immediate check, should it come to that."

She clutched his arm even tighter with her own, hugging him close to her side. "You know, darling, every time you say about having been that age, the more I'm convinced that I wish I'd known you back then."

"And I keep telling you it was best that we met when we did. If you had been seventeen at the same time I was, and we knew each other then, you'd have been expelled from the Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls and sent to the convent school in the Swiss Alps. If I'd managed to evade the consequences of the law, then Max would have been hot on my tail for getting you into trouble, and I'd have been running fast and hard, trying to duck him, Stephen, and Stephen's pistol."

Jennifer gently patted his back as if to comfort or to reassure him. "Max wouldn't have hurt you and Pa wouldn't have shot at you, darling, because I'd have been running fast and hard right with you."

His dreamy grin went boyishly mischievous as looked into her eyes. "Bonnie and Clyde, 'ey?"

"You bet. That would probably have been the start of our getting into 'those things' we seemed to always get into."

"It definitely would have been for me."

He the comment so low that she wasn't quite sure she'd heard him correctly, or if she had, what he meant by it didn't immediately register.

"Excuse me?"

"The first of getting into things." he said a little louder as he led the way into the library. "It would have been for me, and I wouldn't have been the least bit upset about doing it or about the possible repercussions, as long I was getting into y-"

It was that second pat on the back, administered much lower and a lot more forcefully, that cut him off.

"Wonderful."

A few steps inside the living room where it had evidently drawn him from the front hall, Benjamin stood admiring the painting over the mantel. Standing a few paces behind him, Stephen studied his cousin. It had to have been decades since Benjamin's last visit to Briarwood. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time.

Then it came to him, just as Benjamin spoke over his shoulder. "I don't recall this being here in those days before the funeral.”

Yes, as hard as it was to believe, that had been the last time. Benjamin and Rebecca, then newlyweds, stayed there with him and Jennifer for a few days right after it happened. They came to help, but there was precious little anyone could do for those two that Suzanne Edwards left behind. Rebecca tried as hard as she could to comfort Jennifer, but Jennifer wanted no part of anyone in those first few days. In fact, for years she had gone her own way, dealing with her pain on her own. Fortunately, the route she chose was largely the decent and upright one her mother had shown her.

“From the detail, I surmise that it had to have been done just before the accident.” Benjamin said, returning to looking up at the portrait. “This is just as I remember Suzanne and as I recall Jennifer at that time. She certainly loved that girl. About twelve, was Jennifer not?"

“She was indeed. It was she who found that painting in an attic last summer. I had it brought down and hung there. I thought that an appropriate place for it.”

“Quite.”

Walter appeared in the other doorway, the one that led to the east wing of the house. “Excuse me, sir. Would you and Mr. Bach like tea or coffee brought in?”

When they decided on tea and biscuits in the study, and Walter went to get things ready for them, Stephen and Benjamin left the living room to walk around to the study. The large wedding portrait in that room drew a second round of praise from Benjamin.

"Magnificent. They made such a handsome couple. You have always had such a good eye for what should go where and what artist to use to transpose a mechanical work into a human endeavor. The house looks as if Suzanne never left it. You've done well by her."

Stephen, happy for his recent- and apparently timely- positive change in disposition, savored the compliment. When Suzanne was alive, she managed the house and its general decor, but she allowed him full say in the matter of their collection of fine art, claiming that he had the better eye and taste for that sort of thing. It had also been a favorite pursuit of his to find just the right artist to render what Suzanne termed a "cold photograph" into a "warm, alive painting", just as Benjamin mentioned. The last time had been with that wedding portrait of Jennifer and Jonathan.

"Jennifer is still a lovely girl. Your Suzanne would be quite proud of her."

"As would your Rebecca of Elizabeth. She has turned out quite well, too."

Benjamin sighed and moved from the fireplace to one of the two chairs by the windows where he sat down. "Would that she could find the kind of happiness that your Jennifer has found with her Jonathan. An enduring marriage seems a rare thing in these times."

"What worked for Jennifer is not necessarily what would work for Elizabeth. She seems to have found her purpose. So, how goes the school in your opinion?"

From the increased blush in Benjamin's full cheeks, Stephen could tell that his message registered with his cousin. He'd kept it to himself, but he always felt that Betsy's earlier personal troubles stemmed from such limiting sentiments being directly stated or subtly conveyed to young women. Marriage and children were not the only road to fulfillment for females. In his mind, Elizabeth's- Betsy's- earlier disappointments and subsequent problems stemmed from that mistaken and somewhat oppressive perception and expectation.

Benjamin's slow smile told Stephen that in bringing up the topic of the school Elizabeth was developing, he'd struck a more favored note.

"I was there for a few days earlier this year," Benjamin said. "She loves showing her father around to her students. It has been five years, but things seem to be working out well for her and the young ladies. The campus is wonderful, Stephen; it has a very good feel, socially as well as academically. They have cleared another two acres, and will be adding a sixth grade dormitory and house next year, making room for classes to accommodate that group as well as seventh and eighth grade as they come to fruition. The plans for the upper school are already on the table. Betsy still has many of the same girls she started out with as first graders, which says a lot about their parents' confidence in the program. Betsy has a talent for drawing people to her and to her causes."

"Elizabeth has always been a very engaging girl, a very positive, intelligent person."

Benjamin blushed even harder and Stephen empathized, having also been a widower left with a daughter to raise. The road for both of them had sometimes been a rough and tortuous one, but they hung in there with their girls, the end result very much worth the pain of the process. For himself, the greater private joy was knowing how Jennifer, on her own, always made sure that her younger cousin didn't stray too far from the straight and narrow. When Elizabeth did manage to get herself into deep trouble, Jennifer stayed right with her, kept the girl close to her until she was strong enough to strike out on her own once more.

And Jennifer did so quietly, without fanfare, and without consulting with either of them on it. She had gone about it the way her mother would have; she simply took care of it.

"Betsy's formed some strong alliances in her relatively young life," Benjamin continued, "and they have all been a great help to her in so many ways."

"You have mentioned alliances..."

Benjamin shifted from surveying the room to look across the tea table to him. "Alliances? Yes?"

Stephen kept his gaze steady. "You and my late wife. You never told me. I never would have thought."

"Never told you what? You never would have thought what?"

"That the two of you... behind my back. I never suspected that the two of you were... involved."

The rosy cheeks blanched and the snow white brows clumped together, puckered toward the center of Benjamin's deeply furrowed forehead. "Involved? Behind your back? Me?"

"Yes you."

"With Suzanne?"

"Yes, you and my Suzanne. What were the two of you playing at?"

Benjamin's dark eyes and his voice took on an offended edge. "I am sure that I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Oh, but I think you do. Certain things have come to my attention in the past couple of days. I think you need to shed light upon them as Suzanne is not here to speak for herself."

Benjamin rolled his eyes in apparent exasperation. Then he flipped open the humidor on the table, removed a cigar and the cutter, closed the lid down again and sat back in his chair, crossing one short leg over the other. Stephen continued to watch as his cousin carefully prepared his selection and then reached into his vest pocket for a lighter, which he touched to the snipped end of the cigar.

After the first long drag, Benjamin held the corona aloft and spoke as the last thick wisps of white smoke billowed from his nostrils. The hard edge in his previous tone was gone, replaced by an unmistakable air of nonchalance.

"I always told you that you left her alone too often and for too long. She was a beautiful woman, all that red hair and those oddly-hued eyes. Very alluring, she was. Intelligent, talented, refined, but highly spirited. I am, if nothing else, an honest man. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I did not take notice of any of that."

"Hmph, I thought as much."

Stephen continued to stare at the man who was no longer looking at him. After another prolonged silence, he noticed the corner of Benjamin's eye begin to crinkle as his lips slowly curled into a reluctant, but irrepressible smile around the corona.

"You know that we are much too old for this, Stephen Edwards. You and that wicked sense of humor of yours. Rest assured that if I had so much as contemplated making a move on that independent maverick woman you married, she would have beaten me to a bloody pulp, garroted me with one of those wires from her piano, and hung my severed head on a fence pole at the front gate as warning to anyone else thinking of trying anything with her in your absence. Suzanne Roussel Edwards was strictly a one-man woman, and you were that one man."

Stephen's eyes sparkled with mischief as he lit his own cigar. "But I had you going for a second, didn't I?"

"For a split second, maybe, and only because you caught me off guard with it. You always could keep a straight face when engaging in foolishness and the subject was an odd one, but then I spied the book."

He pointed across the room to the desk where Jennifer and Pat's project lie in the center of it. "I take it that your daughter has filled you in on its background."

"She has. She brought it to me when she arrived on Wednesday."

Stephen got up and went for the large temporarily bound package which he brought back with him, resting it on his lap. "All these years... I had no idea Suzanne was doing this. None at all. Jennifer told me that while they were here last summer, Justine found her grandmother's drafts and notes. She turned it all over to Jennifer, who decided to finish what her mother started. Patricia has been assisting her in it, but then I guess you have already been made privy to all of that."

He raised his eyes to Benjamin. "Why would my wife not share this with me? Why did she not tell me that she was writing? And then, why have you never mentioned any of this to me?"

Benjamin shrugged and at first seemed to have a hard time finding his words. "I- I- .... I honestly have to say that I had forgotten about it. When the accident happened, it was all so sudden; it took us all by surprise and left us all in shock. Of course that was not the time to tell you of it. When Rebecca and I returned home, I put the notes away because it was too soon to even consider what else to do with the unfinished work. Then you left the country and moved on with your life. I filed everything away to have for you some time in the future. Then we had Betsy, then I lost Rebecca and went through my own difficulties. Then Betsy had her troubles. Suzanne's work stayed filed away literally as well as in my mind until Jennifer contacted me about what she'd found and told me what she wanted to do with it.

"I can't tell you how surprised and pleased I was that she'd discovered the stories and wanted to work on them. What more fitting person is there to do that? And bringing in her publisher friend to help her?"

Benjamin turned back around to face Stephen. "And speaking of her publisher friend, is Patricia well?"

"As far as I know. Why do you ask?"

"She came with Jennifer to pick the book up from me to bring to you. She looked a bit pale and- just not quite herself. Betsy said that when they took her out the other night to celebrate her upcoming marriage,  Patricia didn't stay. She slipped out, leaving well before the party was over. Looking at her myself, I thought she seemed a tad tired. That is not at all like her."

"Wedding jitters, most likely."

He was playing it casual and unconcerned, but Benjamin's observations whipped Stephen's earlier apprehensions right back up their original intensity from where they'd been quelled somewhat by his conversation with Jennifer. His cousin's insights were further confirmation of what he originally felt for himself but tried to deny. He and Benjamin had those three girls between them. Along with Jennifer, over the years Patricia had also made Elizabeth's welfare a personal concern, and had thus become very dear to Elizabeth's father. But with nothing he could really say about to confirm or deny anything about Patricia's own well-being, Stephen attempted to at least make it better for Benjamin.

"She is putting on the wedding and reception herself, and she tends to throw her entire self into a project. She and her fiancé have been months refurbishing Farrell's place. She has recently done a bit of coast-to-coast traveling, lost some acquaintances in the terrorist fiasco in New York, which also put a security strain on her own enterprise. She's taken on personal custody of a young lady, with whom there is quite a bit going on at the moment that Patricia has been necessarily drawn into. I don't doubt that it has all taken a physical toll on her. She and her William will be going away for a while after the wedding. He will see to her resting and getting back to herself."

"He is a good man?"

"Extremely. More importantly, he is good with her. There is a reason that Patricia has gone this long without marrying again. Up to now, she has not wanted or needed a man as a permanent fixture. To get her to commit to marriage at this point in her life, I have to think him one heck of a man. I like him. But more importantly, the girl has told me that she loves him and wants to be with him."

"On the subject of girls..."

Benjamin leaned his elbows on the table, those dark eyes taking on an added sparkle. "That granddaughter of yours."

"What of her?"

"My goodness. I hadn't seen Justine in some time: she was just a little thing when last I saw her. But when she came down those stairs just now, I literally stopped breathing. Stephen, she is the image of her grandmother when she was a young girl, back when you and Suzanne were courting. Surely you see it. My God, does she know? Does she realize?"

Stephen smiled, pressing both hands to the book resting on his thighs. "Justine is her own person, Benjamin. In appearance, she is very much like her mother, and Jennifer has always resembled Suzanne and Sabrina, so it stands to reason that it would come full circle in that way. I am sure had she lived, Suzanne would have taken great pleasure in Justine, and Justine in Suzanne."

Discreetly clearing his throat as he arrived at the door, Walter brought in the serving tray which he set down on the table.

"Miss Justine's guest in on his way up from the gate, Mr. Edwards."

Stephen handed Walter the book and then removed a cigar from the humidor, which he lay it on top of the box once he closed it back down. "Thank you, Walter."

Walter took the book to the desk where he lay it down. He turned back to Stephen. "Would you like the young man brought in to you right away, sir?"

"I will call for him when I am ready."

"As you wish."

"I see that look in your eye," Benjamin said once Walter was gone from the room. "A beau? A suitor?"

Stephen drank some of his tea and then set the cup back down on the saucer. He selected a biscuit from the assortment Walter brought in and then sat back again.

"An acquaintance. She met him last summer when she went with her mother and Patricia to their reunion at Gresham Hall."

"I see. And speaking of Gresham Hall, my cousin...."

"Yes-s-s-s, we will be making that trip, Benjamin Bach. Of that, you can rest assured."

The tour started on the second floor. J.J. chose to use the elevator, primarily to show off that particular feature of the house. Betsy stepped off, taking in the assortment of doors along both sides of the long, wide hall.

"My goodness, J. How many rooms are up here? How many are there in the house?"

"I don't know how many rooms there are in the whole house; I've never really taken the time to count. You have your standard rooms downstairs: living room, dining room, kitchen and pantries. There are Walter and Rosa's rooms, Pa's study, the music room, the mud room, and a bunch of other nooks and crannies that I can't think of right now. I don't care much for the floor plan down there, too choppy and cut-up for me. I like for rooms on the main floor to flow into each other and be larger as opposed to having so many smaller separated spaces."

"Like at your house in California?"

"Exactly. Daddy said that was why he chose it, and I'm so glad he did. Up here there's the sitting room for general hanging out, the small library, and five bedrooms, including Pa's suite."

Actually there were six bedrooms, but that one bedroom she included as part of "Pa's suite". After all, it wasn't as if it were available for anyone to use or to even peek into. That one was as private as private could get. Not even Betsy could be let in on that one at the moment.

After taking Betsy around, J.J. opened a door and ushered Betsy inside rather than showing it to her from the doorway as she had the other rooms. "This is my bedroom. It used to be my mother's when she was a little girl, before the accident. Afterward, she moved to that other, larger room I showed you, the one that she and Daddy are using now."

Betsy walked around it, checking out the furnishings, the closet, and the bathroom.

"This very nice. Very elegant. 'Posh' as they say across The Pond." She sat down in the big chair by the window, patting its overstuffed arms. "Is this where your mother was when you and Marnie came out of the closet?" Then one hand shot to her mouth. "Ooh, I didn't mean it like that."

This time J.J. erupted in laughter, setting off the same reaction in Betsy, who collapsed onto the chair while J.J. fell backward onto the bed, both hands pressed to her convulsing tummy.

"Aw man, Bets, you are crazy!" J.J. moaned when she could stop laughing long enough to get it out and to wipe at her eyes. "Look, I'm pretty sure about myself, but no way is Marnie e-e-e-ever- coming out of that kind of closet. And that is how my mother wound up looking right down Marnie's throat while she was cussing."

Betsy dabbed at her eyes with a tissue she took from the dispenser. "You and I are going to go through an entire box of these before it's all said and done. We are so silly together. I can just picture Jen in my mind, sitting here, lying in wait for the two of you. What had you done that brought her in here in the first place?"

"Now how come I had to have done something?"

"Because I know you, J. And I know Jen. If she crept up on you like that, you'd done something she was trying to catch you off guard about."

J.J. pushed up from the bed and came over to sit on the hassock in front of Betsy's chair.

"Okay, see, she was kind of bent out of shape because I rode my horse at night. I'll have to take you out to the stable and show him to you, too. My mother got on me because I snuck out in the cold to do it, and I already had this stupid cold. According to her, I was supposed to be staying in the house, even though she hadn't specifically said that I had to. I told her if I had asked her if I could go out and ride Trip, she'd have said I couldn't go, so I didn't ask; I just did it."

"That's you, J. Always has been, and I'm awfully afraid, it always will be. Using that iffy, convenient logic to your advantage. Say, isn't your room at home kind of set up like this, chair by the window and all?"

"You remember my room?"

"Of course I remember, it's only been a couple of years, and before you came along, your room used to be my room. It was the original house in those days, but Jen had a big chair by the window way back then, too, that she used to sit in and get with me when I was doing dumb stuff. Looking back on things, like I often do, I don't know how she put up with me, but she did. I do love her for it."

"What did you think when she married Daddy? Did you like him right off? Were you a little bit jealous that he might get in the way?"

"I thought he was really cute and nice, but I did worry a little that she might not have time for me; they were crazy about each other, so much in love. But it seems when he married Jen, Jonathan was also aware that he'd inherited me. He accepted me and looked out for me, and took care of me just like Jen did. He is nothing less than wonderful with kids and teenagers."

"I know," J.J. said with a smile as she idly picked at the threads of her perch. "He's a pretty good guy; my friends like him a lot. What about Aunt Pat? I've never thought much about it before now, but how was it that the two of you got together?"

"She was just kind of always there. For a long time, when I was little, I thought she was my cousin, too. She has always been something closer to me than simply Jennifer's friend. She's part of the family. A total bitch a lot of the time, a lot meaner and more cutting than Jen, but a huge, caring heart. Solid gold. When Jen couldn't make a point with me, Pat would pop up and threaten to lay me out for being hard-headed and for stressing sweet, patient Jen. When I pledged the sorority, that's when Pat took me under her wing totally. Talk about your big sister and being initiated. J., Pat wore me out. Made a woman of me, though."

"See, that's why I'm not pledging any sorority when I go to college. That initiation stuff would have me cold cocking someone for real, and I'd never get in anyway." J.J. lowered her head to murmur, "That's if I even go to college."

"Hold, hold, hold," Betsy declared, reaching to take J.J.'s shoulder firmly in hand. "What do you mean, 'if'? As smart as you are? You're going to college, girl. Don't make me have to do a 'Pat Hamilton' intervention on you. What is this about?"

J.J. raised her eyes to Betsy's and then sighed heavily.

"I'd only really say this to you, nobody else would even entertain my spoken thoughts on the matter. But if I'm smart already, then why do I need college, Bets? Why can't I travel and learn things? Why can't I just do a hands-on practicum in whatever I decide to do with my life? Why do I have to spend another four years or more in classrooms? I love learning, you know that, but why does it have to be in an institution, inside walls, sitting in a desk?"

The intercom buzzed, stopping Betsy from saying anything. J.J. reached to the side table and pressed the console button. "Yes?"

"Miss Justine, your guest has arrived."

Betsy released her shoulder, but with a quick, hard push

"Thank you, Walter," J.J. said, rubbing the affected spot. "Ow, what was that for?"

Betsy rose from the chair, taking hold of J.J.'s arm to unceremoniously pull her up and move her toward the door. "We'll finish this conversation later, young lady."

J.J. tried to pull back. "Wait, I need to check my hair and things."

But Betsy wasn't hearing that. She held on to J.J., continuing to move her out of the room. "You look fine."

"How do you know it's a guy, Bets?"

"Because you're bothering to check your hair and things, which you wouldn't do for a female guest. With all those gorgeous genes you have swimming around in you, you could go down there to him straight out of the shower, and he'd think you a goddess." 

"I guess he would if I went down there straight out of the shower. Any guy would think that of any girl; that's how they're cut. A girl wouldn't need any 'gorgeous genes,' or even a face, for that matter, to get noticed in that situation. All she'd need to be a goddess in that case is her parts below the neck and to still be wet."

And they both had to stop at the head of the stairs to again indulge their laughter.

"We're horrible, J."

J.J. wrapped an arm around Betsy's shoulders to give her a final quick hug. "I know, but it's so much fun. Jeez, I have really, really missed you."

Just before the turn at the landing, where they could see down into the front hall, Betsy pulled back, keeping J.J. with her. "Two of them, J?"

"Only Teddy came specifically to see me."

"And which one is Teddy?"

"The one with all the curly hair," J.J. whispered as she peered down at the other person standing with Teddy as Walter took their coats and went around the corner, presumably to the closet to hang them up.

"Two to see you, and both of them good looking, at least they are from here. My word, you are Jen's child. She'd have them lined up on the runway, too. That is, back before Jonathan lay complete claim to her and cut everybody else off at the pass. So who's the other one?"

J.J., still peeking around, looking down the stairs, squinted to better aid her focus.

"Duncan?"

~M~

I planned to tell you these things to your face, but I didn't get the chance, so I'm leaving you this note.

I have been watching you for a while, and I know something is wrong. I don't have any idea what you're scared about, but you are. I figure it has to be big because you don't freak out over small things. Whatever it is, please know that I'm in your corner like you have always been in mine.

I'm not real religious or anything, you know that, but I do believe in God. I've had to call on him a few times myself when the drama got too deep for me to handle on my own, actually I've done it a lot recently. My grandmother has this thing she says when times get rough that I've found to be true for me. She says, "He didn't bring you this far to leave you".

He isn't going to let you get this close to being really happy to cut you off from it now, but you have to do your part. I understand that He helps those who help themselves.

Do what you need to do. Do what you're supposed to do. Do what's right to do.

Do what you would tell me to do.

Thank you for taking such good care of me and my family, and I'll certainly think about what you said about school and all. I'm grateful for the options you have provided to me.  I hope you come back here in time to read this note before you go on your honeymoon, because I know you're going to do that.

 That better not be the issue you're having. You would be CRAZY to not marry Uncle Bill. I can say that to you in a note. I'd never have said THAT to you to your face. Or at least not within your reach.

Seriously, please tell Bill what's wrong, and then let him help you. It doesn't mean you're weak to have to ask someone to help you.

I love you, Pat.

Closing her eyes, Pat lay her head back against the plush leather of her chair, and smiled as she thought of the writer of that note in her hand.

No, little one, I'm not crazy. But you would have been....

You are a mess, but such a damned smart and sweet one....

The Hello Kitty doll resting on the bed pillows had been the first thing she noticed. Then she saw the small white envelope underneath the paws. Closer examination revealed a second envelope, that one addressed to her in Jennifer's hand. She'd looked at that one first.

Inside was a note from Jennifer along with a name, one she immediately recognized, and a phone number. She handed that message off and come down to her study to read that other one. At that moment, the smaller envelope had been a whole lot more important. The agreement had already been made that he would handle the rest of it.

"You ready, Babe?"

She jumped. That quickly, she had been on her way back to sleep. She opened her eyes and sat up.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

Bill was standing in the doorway. Dressed to leave himself, he had her coat and scarf draped across his arm and her hat in his hand.

"Yes, but give me just a second." Picking up her cell from the desk, Pat pressed in a single button, 'send', and clicked off.

By that time Bill was standing over her holding up the coat for her to slide her arms into the sleeves, which she stood and did, slipping the note she'd been reading into her coat pocket. He wrapped the scarf around her neck and used it to pull her close.  "It's all taken care of, babe. Your friend must have been anticipating you."

"She always does."

"It's going to change our plans considerably."

"Better to get it out of the way, Bill. Like we said, we can take care of two birds at one time."

Bill placed the fedora on her head and carefully pulled it down over her eyes, the way she wore it. Taking her coat by the lapels, he brought her lips to his and kissed her, wrapping his arms around her to hold her.

"Yes, that's true," he said as he kissed her neck. "Me and Valentine have the kind of birds that deserve taking care of."

As she tried not to lose herself in Bill's embrace, Pat wondered where in the world, what in the world, who in the world she would be at that moment if Jennifer had never come into her life. None of what mattered to her would be if she and Jennifer had never met. If nothing else, she was the precious bird that deserved the best...

... and she had it in that man she married.

It was the least she and Bill could do to facilitate that marvelous union.

When the phone buzzed, Marnie's hand was already on it, as it had been almost all that morning at any time that she wasn't actually talking on it. She snatched it out, checked the display, and smiled. With her thumb, she tapped the "M" button and then 'send', transmitting her response to the sender's equally brief message.

"You and that phone," she heard Lisa say. "What would you do without a cell? One of your brothers?"

Marnie, still smiling and feeling much better about things, slid the small device back into her coat pocket.

"No, just a friend checking in with me. And I'd probably be okay if I never had a cell to get used to. But now that I have gotten in the habit, try taking it away from me. I'd die, plain and simple. Mrs. H. kept it from me once, as a punishment for getting it taken up when I got caught texting in class. She had to come to the school and pick it up from the office, and then she said for being irresponsible with it I couldn't have the phone back for a while. After one day, I was like a crack fiend, going around begging to use other people's phones, cramping, foaming at the mouth, convulsing. I think in the end Mrs. H. only gave it back to keep me from lapsing into a coma, and that was only after the school counselor called her and talked her into it after she saw the shape I was in."

Lisa laughed hard. "I'll bet. You certainly give that thing a good workout."

"I've got it bad," Marnie said, "but I'm not in denial about it. I have three brothers and lots of friends to keep up with, not to mention that my social life is on remote control via the phone these days."

They were in the car headed back to Hillhaven from their Black Friday shopping in the city. The trunk and the back seat were filled with evidence of their concentrated activity.

"You're also some shopper, Miss Marnie Elaine. You must love it in New York with all those fabulous stores in such close proximity."

"I do, but this time of year, it's too cold to be getting out there for too long. Since I've been in Manhattan, I do most of my shopping online or the driver drops me off and picks me up right in front of the particular store I'm going to. None of that walking around for me. Too, too cold.."

"Yes, I guess that wicked wind whipping up the avenue between the high rises would be a little inhibiting."

"Exactly, and then, too, there's not that much I really need to purchase what with being tutored at home and all. Ms. Haversham makes me get dressed for my lessons, business casual, but I can do that easy with what I already have."

"Well, I have to hand it to you, Marnie. I thought I was good, but you had me beat today with getting the job done and finding the good deals. Your brothers are going to love their Christmas gifts."

"Thanks. I've been shopping for myself since I was about eight, so I'm a vet at it now. But then I especially love Christmas shopping, trying to match up people with the right gifts; that's fun. I got a little nervous when I thought I was going to have to miss Black Friday this year. I mean, I was willing to give it up for the cause, but with my father being in the situation he's in, I promised him that I'd see to it that the boys got the things he wanted them to have. He gave me his list the last time I saw him, and I was kind of counting on being able to get out for a few hours to catch some of the deals while we were here."

"Me, too. I'm glad that it worked out that we could."

"So am I. I don't want my father worrying about anything except his therapy and getting better. Not being there for us is worrying for him, and he doesn't need that. I especially don't want him fretting about Kyle; I've got Kyle."

"Speaking of Kyle..."

Marnie turned her head to look directly at Lisa. "What about him?"

Lisa kept her eyes on the road as she spoke. "I'd like to ask you something. I hope I'm not prying. Please understand, it's the mother of sons in me that makes me ask."

"Okay?"

"Well, of course I know a little bit about you, about your family structure, but I'm really trying to understand about Kyle. You know, how- why..."

"You're trying to ask me what the deal is on his mother."

Lisa nodded. "If you don't mind sharing. I'm just trying to- to understand, I guess."

Marnie hesitated a moment to consider the request. With the way things were panning out between Kyle, Bill and Pat, it was probably inevitable that Kyle would end up in Nevada at some time with Lisa and Peter and their family. Even though she'd only just met her on the night before, she felt fairly comfortable with Pat's future daughter-in-law, who as she said, was a mother of sons herself. From the look of it, she was pretty good at it, too. Her four boys all seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves, from the baby boy who was headed for an Ivy League college right on up to that driven, but handsome oldest one.

"It's okay. I don't mind," Marnie finally said. "You should probably know anyway."

Settling back into her seat again, she began filling Lisa in.

"So I guess you probably know that Kyle is my half-brother. His mother, Terry, lives in Europe, London mostly now. She works for an international airline that flies out of Heathrow, so she travels a lot. My father got with her before he left my mother. I only recently found out, while I was going through my stuff with the lawyers about my own mother, that Terry and my father weren't ever married; they just shacked up for the short time they were together. I guess I was so young when it happened that I just assumed they'd been married. Then when it didn't last all that long, that fact just never came up, at least not to me. But that aside, Terry wound up going back to work when Kyle was about one, one and a half. She hired a nanny to look after him, took off for a flight, and just never came back. She called my father and said she was out, that she couldn't handle being a mother full time."

"That's awful, Marnie. How could she do that to her own baby?"

Marnie shrugged. "People do what they feel they have to do. At least she didn't hang around, acting all resentful and unhappy toward Kyle, making his life miserable. His father loved him and did the right things by him.  Daddy is busy himself a lot of the time, so he doesn't get to spend a whole lot of time with any of us, but he does the best he can- well, he did before the accident. Even in that, though, he's doing his best. He's made sure, legally, that we're all in the best possible positions until he gets better. But back to Kyle and his mother."

"Yes, go on."

"For a while, Terry would stop in to see him when she was in the States or she would send for him to come to her when she was on vacation from her job. I don't know her that well, and I was still kind of young when all of this was going on, but I think she might have had a lot of boyfriends and stuff and that maybe her life was kind of chaotic because my father wound up cutting her off from sending for Kyle to come to her. Every time Kyle would come back from a visit with his mother, he'd be acting out and Daddy would have to break him back in. Finally Daddy went to court and made it so that Terry could only see him in the States, for a limited amount of time, and she could only take him so far when she was here.

"Then my father married Karen, who was pregnant with my brother, Brett. Kyle was about five then, and all of sudden here comes this new lady and right after her, a new baby. And not long after that, another baby, Mikey, our youngest brother. Put all of that together with having a flaky, fair weather mother of his own, and you can see where that might mess a little kid up some.

"Despite the fact that my father and Terry messing around with each other and her getting pregnant is what split up my parents' marriage, Kyle and I have always been very close. He's always been my little brother; I've always been his big sister, we're both the older siblings of Brett and Mikey. We don't figure our parents' drama into our relationship. We never have between any of us."

"That's a good thing, Marnie. Bill mentioned that to us. I admire you a lot for the way that you look out for all your siblings and keep things together the way that you have. I noticed you calling to check in on the guys."

Marnie smiled as she brushed non-existent lint from her pristine cashmere coat. "Well, I'm the oldest. Daddy is usually wrapped up in business, and Karen has her own issues. Somebody has to keep order. Brett, Mikey, and I do have our mothers, such as they are. Kyle doesn't have his, but he does have me. I try to fill in as best I can because I don't want him growing up into one of those men who have it out for all women because his mother and his stepmother aren't sh- didn't do right by him."

When she heard Lisa's small gasp at her near-miss, Marnie went back to address it. "Sorry. I have that bad, too, but I get real passionate about family matters, especially as they relate to that one of my brothers."

Lisa reached across to briefly place a hand on Marnie's shoulder. "That's all right. Family and being protective of them is something to be passionate about."

"Thanks. In a nutshell, Lisa, I just really try hard to be there for Kyle; he's one of those kids that could go either way depending upon how he's handled. A couple of years back, I guess he started noticing that he was kind of the odd man out in our circle. He started asking me questions about his mother like why she left him with my father, why she didn't take him with her when she took off, why he didn't live with his mother like the rest of us, stuff like that. He started rejecting her letters to him, declining the presents she sent him. What little kid turns down presents? I could see he was in trouble.

"I was just a kid myself at the time, but I knew I had to do what I could to let him know that even though Terri was his biological mother, she was only human. People can only give you what they have to give. It might not have been in her to be a full-time mom, but that didn't mean that he was any less for it; that was just who she was. It didn't help, though, that by that time my father had married and had two more kids with a woman who, as pathetic as she is, stayed with her kids.

"Kyle started having bad problems, being angry all the time, acting up at home and in school, getting into fights and getting himself suspended a lot. He was becoming so depressed and started acting scared about being there with Karen. I think she might have been doing and saying things to him when Daddy and I weren't there. See, Kyle is special to both of us, and Karen has picked up on it. Kyle's the oldest son, and I think that bothers her. Anyway, that's when I asked Aunt Pat to help get Kyle into Brookfield to get him out of there. Aunt Pat talked to Daddy, and they got right on it and made it happen in one afternoon. Can you believe that? Aunt Pat knows al-l-ll the right people."

"That's been a good thing for Kyle, I understand."

"Excellent so far. It's only been a few months, but already he seems a lot happier and more at peace. Even though some awful circumstances put Daddy there, it's good that he's closer to Kyle now in terms of distance. And with my having been in New York, I was close to both of them. Two or three times when I was in Boston to see my father at the physical rehab place, I dropped in on Kyle at his dorm. I also went with Aunt Pat to his first Parent-Teacher conference. His grades are pretty good, way better than they were in Los Angeles. He needs to work on his writing; Kyle hates to write. He still gets into things, but it's just boy stuff now, not acting out or fighting because he's angry about his life. Not one school suspension or even a detention yet. Well, not since that first one, but I don't count that one because it was before classes started, and he didn't really know the rules that well at the time."

"I can certainly see why Pat is so taken with you. You're an awful lot like her."

Instantly intrigued by the assessment, one she considered a very high compliment as well as a relatively objective observation seeing as how Lisa had only just gotten to know her, Marnie again turned to her. "I am? How so?"

"Because neither of you are anything like you appear to be. You are both very pleasant surprises when one gets to know you."

Processing what Lisa said for a moment, looking at it from a couple of different angles, attempting to see the situation from Lisa's perspective, Marnie ventured, "So how do you feel about Aunt Pat? I mean, you've been in Uncle Bill's life for a long time. What do you think about him getting married to her, if I'm not being too forward or prying. Do you like her? Were you and Peter as surprised about them as everybody else?"

Marnie saw it as Lisa's eyes briefly flitted over to her, sizing her up, but she'd already taken her shot. Her years of hanging around J.J. had taught her one very important thing about asking questions: a person had a fifty-fifty chance of being answered if the question was put out on the table. The odds were considerably lower for keeping silent.

"It's hard to believe I'm talking with a sixteen-year-old," Lisa finally said with a sigh as she turned the car off the main highway onto County Road. "Somehow, you seem much older. But since you asked, we were very surprised when Dad told us they were getting married. We knew they were friends, but we thought it was a casual thing. Like they just enjoyed each other's company when they happened to be in the other person's part of the country. Reno is a large publishing hub, so Pat had reason to be there from time to time. Dad has business all over the country, plus he likes to take off and just roam, often without telling us he's going. A lot of times we don't know he's gone until he's gotten where he was going and phoned to tell us."

Marnie's smile was wistful, matching the tone of her voice. "My father was like that, too. He could be anywhere, Colorado, Texas, Chicago, Vancouver, Singapore. He went wherever his business took him. It sort of kept me on point; I never knew where he might turn up." Then, with a small wave, as if sending those thoughts on their way, she returned to the former subject. "So when did you guys find out about Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill hooking up for real?"

"Well, as I said, we had no idea they were as serious as they were until very recently, maybe around the time J.J. got kidnapped along with her friend. When the news broke, we found out that he was in New York. It came out not long after that he was in New York, staying with her. For something that's been going on for years as it has, they've kept that real quiet. I was a little skeptical in the beginning."

"Why?"

"Well, Marnie, first of all, I guess I'm very protective of Bill. He's the only father I've ever had. See, my own father walked out of my life before I was born. Although he turned up sporadically during my growing up years, he never really did anything for me. I was raised by my mother. Then Peter didn't have a mother growing up. She died when he was very young; he says he doesn't remember much about her. I think that's what brought the two of us together in the first place, being raised by a single parent, and it's what's kept us together all these years- that sense of family unity. Kind of like what you have with your brothers."

"That's why you were asking about Kyle."

"Yes. You see, I don't understand people who make babies, but don't stay around to raise them, to help them grow up. I truly don't understand a mother walking away from her child. I know that it happens, but- well, getting back to what we were talking about, when Pat was just an occasional figure in Dad's life- at least as far as we knew- I really didn't pay a lot of attention to her. I'm not saying that I disliked her or anything; I just didn't take the time to get to know her very well. She didn't seem to want that either, to make any lasting bonds with anyone. Dad's had lots of friends over the years, female friends in and out, they've come and they've gone. Nobody ever seemed particularly special to him; he's such a loner for the most part. Pat didn't seem any different from the rest, the few times that we saw her. There was nothing to indicate that they were more than friends. I mean, she was nice enough, but she's not really a woman's woman. By that I mean-"

Marnie cut her off. "I understand that, Lisa. I'm not either. We put other females off, at least at first, until they get to know us. It's called being 'alpha'. I learned that in group."

"Group?"

"Group counseling, at school. They make me go to counseling because they think I have issues. I don't, for real; I just speak my mind, and I don't let anybody run over me. This semester, before I went to New York, I really liked going because it got me out of Ms. Calvin's econ class once a week. I hate Ms. Calvin, so I go to group and listen to everybody talk about the problems they're having with their friends, significant others, their parents; and I give them advice."

"You give them advice? What does the counselor do? What's she there for?"

"She facilitates, but like I said, I'm alpha, so I tend to... well, anyway I've been going to counseling since the eighth grade, one-on-one, group, so I know the ropes real well. People tend to talk to me quicker than they do Ms. Grimsley because I'm their peer. But go ahead and finish what you were saying about Aunt Pat. It's interesting."

They were at a red light, so Lisa took the time to stare at her.

"What?"

"I bet you and J.J. are a mess together. She's alpha, too."

Marnie shook her head. "No she isn't. J.J. is the lone wolf. She does her own thing in her own way. She doesn't really care what the group does or thinks, and she's not going to be alphaed by anybody she doesn't want to be alphaed by. She has this thing she says about people: 'lead, follow, or get out of my way'. That's J.; she operates somewhere else, on some other level- but yes, we've been told that we can be a mess together. Now come on, back to Aunt Pat."

"Not much else. I just thought it odd how I missed her interactions with my boys. She's been looking out for them all along, sending them books, giving them advice on their papers, etc. I just thought they'd lucked up on one of their grandfather's friends who was a good source for them to tap with their schoolwork. I admit, I get busy with all my social commitments, McDowell business, keeping up with the kids activities, and all. I wasn't paying attention. They knew her better than I did."

"So cut to it. Do you like her?"

"I love her. Underneath that hard shell, she really is decent human being, really nice and very funny. She didn't have to, I mean, she's my elder, but she's made it her business to get to know me. I've never had a mother-in-law, but-"

"But?"

"I think she and I are going to be all right. Bill loves her. She seems genuine in her feelings for Bill, which is what's most important to me. I just hope that there isn't something wrong that keeps them from getting what they both want and deserve. Marnie, what do you know about what's going on? You've been there with her all this time. I'm sure you've seen them interact together in recent days."

There it was. The question Marnie suspected was coming. She liked Lisa, but she didn't know her well enough to completely trust her about Pat. As far as she was concerned, even if she did have the information Lisa sought, if she was going to get it, Lisa would have to wait and get it from either Pat or Bill.

Her silence must have made Lisa think further explanation was needed.

"I just think it's so odd that she and Bill haven't gotten in touch with us in all of this time. They're supposed to be getting married tomorrow evening. People are all over the house, inside and outside, getting things ready for them. Jennifer is standing in for her. Jonathan is standing in for Bill. I talked with the minister this morning to confirm. I hope I wasn't lying. They have guests coming in for the ceremony and the reception. What would keep them from being here? Do you have any idea at all, Marnie?"

"I'm afraid I don't, Lisa. But I'm sure Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill know what they're doing. They've left all the preparations in good hands. If something bad had happened to or with them, I'm sure we'd know by now."

Coming around the bend in the road, from that angle, Marnie could see across the flat frontage and the small pond all the way up to the main house at Briarwood. There were two cars in the driveway, but they were too far away for her to discern the make or models, not that she would have known them anyway. Everybody was in rentals that weekend.

They drove on past, headed for the back road that would take them on to Hamilton-McDowell Farms.

"I wonder if they'll be there when we get there," Lisa said.

"Maybe so."

Marnie lay her head back against the seat. "And then again, maybe not."

She closed her eyes. Either way, in her mind, it was all good. She was certain that Pat knew what she was doing.

For the second time that day, J.J. sailed down the stairs to greet someone she was very surprised, but happy to see.

"Duncan! I didn't know you were coming with Teddy. Look at you. I almost didn't know who you were at first."

She clasped hands with Duncan and allowed him to kiss her cheek as she checked out his altered appearance- same shaggy dark hair but no eyeliner, no nail polish, leather jacket and slacks instead of long black trench coat, stovepipe pants, and jack boots. He was simply Duncan, and that wasn't a bad thing at all.

Then Teddy started in on her. "Oh, so I guess I'm just invisible now. I'm the invited guest, but he gets to kiss you first?"

She released Duncan's hands to hug Teddy. ""Oh, you. It's good to see you, too."

"I'm happy to hear that." Teddy laughed and hugged her back as he pressed a quick kiss to her other cheek.

Her earlier apprehensions about his being there melted away. They had only met that previous summer, and she'd known Duncan a whole lot longer, but somehow it seemed she and Teddy had been friends forever. There was something about him that made her comfortable, and in that brief moment in time, she wondered what that really said about them.

"Where's Marnie?" J.J. asked. "I'm surprised she's not with you."

Both boys shrugged, then Teddy answered. "We thought she was here with you."

"Ahem."

In her excitement, she'd forgotten about Betsy even though Betsy was standing right behind her. Wiggling free from Teddy, J.J. turned around to reach for Betsy's arm to draw her closer.

"Teddy Baxter, Duncan Sinclair, I'd like for you to meet my cousin, Dr. Elizabeth Bach."

Betsy shook hands with both boys and invited them, as friends of "her baby cousin" to call her Betsy.

"I have never gotten used to anyone calling me 'doctor' at home," she explained to the boys. "Somehow it only fits when I'm on campus."

"Campus?" Teddy and Duncan asked the question at the same time.

"Come on in." J.J. hooked arms with the boys and started them toward the parlor. She gestured for Betsy to come, too.

"See, Betsy has her own school on Long Island, a private- but not exclusive- academy for girls." Then J.J. turned her attention to Duncan. "So tell me about this change in appearance and about what brought you here."

Duncan pointed past her to Teddy. "He talked me into going home with him to Virginia for Thanksgiving after we got through working on his sets in Boston. My original plan was to fly back to New York when he got ready to come here."

At that point Teddy cut in. "I couldn't stand the idea of him being all by himself in New York for the holiday. See, his parents are still out of the country."

J.J. poked Teddy in the chest. "And could it be that you were a tad bit jealous of that?"

"Heck yeah," Teddy said. "Why should he be happy? My Dad was like, 'Go to Maryland, stay with your mother, or come home to me" after Thanksgiving. You'd think I was a kid or something."

"Or something," J.J. teased, earning an eye roll from Teddy before he went on with his explanations.

"As I was saying, J.J. Hart, Dunc told me that his family had been invited to your aunt's wedding, but that since they weren't in the country, he wasn't planning to come here. In my book, that invitation included him whether his parents showed or not. When we got to my mother's in Virginia, I told him to come on with me to Maryland and hang out with us instead of being by himself in New York with just the help. He didn't want to at first because I was slated to stay with your Aunt Pat and Bill. Dunc thought he'd be imposing since he hadn't been invited to stay at the house, so he called his father and had him make arrangements for him to stay in a hotel that a friend of his manages in the city. Of course if he was staying there, I was, too."

Duncan picked the story back up from there.

"See, I figured if I was coming on Ms. Hamilton's turf, I'd do better to leave the Manhattan persona at home and just be me. But when we got here, ran up on your father, and had to tell him that we weren't staying there because we had booked into a hotel in the city, the man just up and shut us down. J., he made me give him the overseas number to my father, then the number to the hotel I was booked into. He called 'em both and cancelled, talking about we would be staying right there at Ms. Hamilton's place; it wouldn't be any imposition; she'd be happy to have us. Then to me and Teddy, he was like, 'no way are you two staying out there unsupervised in a hotel'." Duncan threw up his free hand. "Heck, I live most of my life unsupervised."

Tickled to her core picturing Teddy and Duncan as her father took aim and skeetshot their plans, she laughed out loud. Her dead-eye father rarely missed what he aimed for. The man could spot crap and deal with it quicker than anyone she knew- well, anyone other than the Duchess, who was even quicker on the draw if she were aiming for some crap J.J. Hart might be trying to pull.

"I take it Aunt Pat wasn't there. Where was my mother when all of this was happening?"

When Teddy casually brushed back the thick, unruly curls from his dark brow, those cocoons J.J. thought had gone dormant in her belly burst wide open. The newly formed butterflies immediately fluttered into frenzied flight forcing her hand to discreetly attempt to press them into submission.

"We didn't see Ms. Hamilton," he said. "But we weren't at the house all that long, so she could have been there, but I don't think so."

Duncan nodded, seconding Teddy's presumption. "Your mother was right there with your father, letting him do all the talking, but I could tell she was on his side about it."

Snickering, J.J. slowly shook her head. "You two must be crazy to think my parents, particularly my father, would allow you to have had a hotel room way out in the city while you're here visiting me for an event that might get him tied up and cause him to lose track of where I am."

"We were staying at the hotel," Teddy said. "Not you."

"Yeah, but you know I'd have made you take me there, just to see what it looked like. And then we'd have lingered, hung out there, ordered up a pizza or something, sat around, kicked it and stayed too long. Daddy would have rolled up on us, and that would have been it."

Betsy, on the other side of Duncan, leaned forward to better see Teddy. "She would have talked you into it, sweetie. She'd have gotten you killed."

J.J. lay a hand on Teddy's shoulder. "You've had experience with my rather strong tendency to not be where I'm supposed to be. Remember how Daddy tracked us down at that party at the marina last summer when we should have been at the country club dance? He hit your cell while your father tapped mine? And that time we were with about seventy other people. A hotel room? Just us? And Daddy knew you had the room? Please, that plan was doomed from the outset."

Betsy was again wiping away tears of mirth. "Ooh, just the thought of you guys, a car, a hotel room, and J.J.- that equation had to have sent Jonathan clear over the edge. Oh, God, I wish I could have seen his face."

Teddy smiled as he shook his head, evidently recollecting the moment. "Mr. Hart made it real clear that he was not entertaining the idea."

"And so, here we are." Duncan stepped away from the group to look around himself. "Gorgeous house, J. Absolutely. Lots of character. I told Teddy I could feel it as we were driving up."

That, J.J. thought to herself, was an excellent description of her grandfather's house. It probably explained why it and her grandfather took so long to grow on her. Character, too, took a person a while to recognize.

"Thank you. My grandparents built this house and originally developed the estate to be a horse farm. Horses are still kept here, of course, but it's just a home now. Most of what you see are original pieces that they brought with them from France and the UK. I was just showing Betsy the upstairs when Walter called us down because you were here. She and I still need to do the first floor, and I need to let Rosa know we have two more for lunch. I'm sure Walter told her, but as you're my guests, I need to make sure that she got the message. Why don't you guys come on with us."

Duncan; however, had already left them, apparently pulled into the living room by that painting over the mantel.

"Who told you where to find me?"

"Nobody had to tell me. I could feel it. Even if I had asked, no one would have told me. Ranks tend to close rather tightly around you when you're in trouble."

"Who says I'm in trouble?"

"Let's not start that again."

"I see you managed to get through my closed ranks."

"I have the right key. I was supposed to be here, and here I am. We need to talk, Patricia."

That earlier conversation with Pat had been playing itself over and over in her mind ever since that morning on Long Island when she confronted Pat about her persistent evasiveness.

She still wasn't any closer to getting to the answer. Lying on the library settee with her eyes closed, Jennifer's mind sailed right to her friend.

We do need to talk, Pat. I don't know where you are, what you're doing, or how you are, but I have to trust that you know what you're doing. In the meantime, I am here looking out for your interests, but we're getting down to the wire, old girl. This isn't like you to be this AWOL. You need to tell me something....

When the sound, as faint as it was, permeated her thoughts, she sat up causing Jonathan's strong fingers to stop their relaxing ministrations on her foot.

"What's the matter?"

"I hear a car. Maybe it's Pat and Bill."

Jonathan went to the window. "No, looks like it's Lisa and Marnie returned to the fold." He remained there, continuing to watch. "With lots of bags. We should probably go help."

By the time she got to the door, he was already out on the porch. Marnie was at the foot of the stairs, her arms loaded with bags and packages.

"Any of these for me?" Jonathan asked Marnie as he took hold of the shopping bag handles looped over her arms.

"Of course, but I'm not telling you which ones, and you can't snoop either."

"Not even a tiny peek?"

"Not even the tiniest one, Mr. H."

Jonathan handed off what he'd taken from Marnie to her, and she set those bags inside the door. Marnie went back to get a few more things from Lisa who was still unloading the car. For the briefest moment she envied their having been able to go; it looked as if they'd had a very fruitful morning. The four of them continued conveying the goods from the car until everything and everyone was inside the house.

Marnie's eyes widened as she took in the decorated front hall and staircase. Removing her gloves and unfastening her coat, she slowly moved toward the living room. "This is all so beautiful, Mrs. H. Like a wonderland or something. Like a fairy tale."

She pressed her hands to her cheeks as she absorbed the wedding decorators' work, including the ten foot, white Christmas tree. "It's just gorgeous, lovely. Aunt Pat should be beyond pleased." Then she turned back around. "Has J. seen this, Mrs. H.? Has she come down yet?"

For a moment, Jennifer found herself caught up in wonder at how her daughter's best friend possessed so many of the surface qualities that she once envisioned J.J. back she was that anonymous, hopefully female entity enlarging her abdomen. Beautifully dressed from head to foot, just in from a day of shopping- a thing she absolutely loved doing, so appreciative of the beautiful things around her, sophisticated, but still very much a child- that was Marnie. J.J. was so different and independent, very much her own interesting, endearing and complex person, nothing like her mother anticipated, but becoming in so many ways so much more.

And, to put it in perspective, it wasn't pretty, feminine, and fashionable Marnie that she'd left down at Briarwood knowing that young male visitors were on the way to see her. Even with Pa on site, she knew she would have had strong reservations about leaving Marnie Elaine on her own in that situation as she had J.J. Hart.

"No, sweetie," she finally answered. "She's is still at Briarwood. Her company's arrived."

As Jennifer anticipated they would, those brown eyes went even wider at that last bit of news. "Ooh, Teddy? He's here? J. didn't call me to say that he was."

There was noise, like feet stomping, outside the door and then it opened, causing everyone to brace themselves against the blast of cold air as Peter and the boys came in. They also carried packages and bags.

Marnie darted straight for Finn, tugging at his arm. "I know you just got here and everything, but can you please run me over to Briarwood?" Then as if she realized she may have jumped the gun, she turned back around to Jennifer and Lisa, "If it's okay with you."

Jennifer struggled to keep from showing how amused she was by that one constant in her young charge; her love for the males of the species. She went to Marnie and took her coat by the shoulders to ease it off of her. "Lunch first, young lady, and then you can go see J.J. and the boys."

Marnie twisted around to look up at her. "Boys? With an 's'? At Briarwood with J.? Who else came? Can't I please have lunch at Briarwood?"

Jonathan joined them, wrapped a fatherly arm around Marnie and took her off to the side as Jennifer went to hang up the coat. She saw him lean down to speak close to Marnie's ear, "Look, you have lunch here with me and these guys," he said to her, "then I'll personally drive you over to Briarwood to see J.J. and those guys. All right?"

Marnie sighed and gave in. "Okay, Mr. H. But I don't think I'm going to have much of an appetite eating here."

"You most likely wouldn't have much of one down there either," he said. "Don't forget, I've known you a very long time."

Jonathan got a huge kick out of Marnie, but he also kept a watchful eye on her. He didn't speak much on the things he saw, but the questions he asked and the rare comments he made, as well as his vigilance over her finances said all there was to say on how he felt about her. For Jennifer, they were all the kinds of things that let her know the depth of character of the man she married, which made her love him all the more.

He grabbed up a few of Marnie's shopping bags, slid them onto her arms, and sent her in the direction of the stairs with the direction that she should get settled and freshened up before eating. By that time all the others were going in their separate directions for that same purpose leaving the two of them alone in the front hall.

Folding her arms, she sidled up to Jonathan as he watched Marnie go up the stairs.

"So, Mr. Hart, you're going to personally deliver Miss Marnie to my father's house. Do I sense a wee bit of self-serving in that gesture?"

Only the twinkle in his eye gave him away. "I'm sure I have no idea what you could be talking about, Mrs. Hart. I am merely going to Briarwood to drop the young lady off to be with her friends."

"Um-hmmm." She said as together they meandered toward the stairs themselves. "And I'm a platinum blonde."

In the music room, Duncan was again drawn to the oil painting dominating the room.

"You guys sure have some master craftsmen on tap to do your portraits, J.J. The work I've seen so far is simply awesome. I'm telling you, that painting of your Aunt Pat down there in her living room, the artist really captured her essence. For sure, he totally got that look in her eyes. It was like she was staring down at me, asking me, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Then he abruptly whipped around to Betsy. "Oh, excuse me, ma'am. I forgot myself."

Betsy groaned. "Now I know I'm officially old. I've become 'ma'am' at home, too."

J.J. patted her back. "Don't worry, Bets, old and all, you're still my girl. My friends and I have very good home training; we've been taught to respect to our elders."

Betsy shrugged her way out from under that playfully condescending arm around her shoulders. "Forget you, Justine Hart."

Duncan had resumed his visual examination of the woman on the horse. "That's your grandmother, too. She's younger in this one. How old was she then?"

"Very early twenties, I'm told. My grandfather gave her that horse- his name was Sinbad, the horse, I mean, not my grandfather- for her twenty-first birthday."

"The family resemblance is real strong," Duncan observed. "I mean between you, your mother, and your grandmother, not you and the horse."

"Because you're company, I'll let you have that one, Duncan Sinclair, but mostly because there happens to be an adult in the room."

"I'm J.J.'s cousin on her grandfather's side."

Duncan inclined his head just enough to be able to peek over his shoulder at Betsy. "So I see good looks, nice hair, and pretty smiles run on both sides of the family."

"Smart boy," Betsy said.

Standing next to J.J., she leaned in to her. lowering her voice. "You know, J., I've always held the opinion that you looked just like Jen. I was beginning to question it in the living room, but at this juncture, I think I'm going to have to change my position entirely, especially after seeing this painting. Whoo, that's kind of eerie."

"But in a nice way," J.J. whispered back. "Actually, I'm quite honored; I think it's special that, according to popular opinion, I'm starting to look like her. But you know, what I really wish is that I could have known her, gotten to talk with her, had visits with her, gone riding with her. Betsy, is it crazy to miss someone so much when you never had the chance to even meet her?"

Betsy increased her hold on the young arm entwined with her own. "I always said you were a deep thinker, J. You and the questions that defy answers...."

Teddy had dropped back behind all of them. He was checking out the room, looking at the smaller paintings and photographs and the furnishings. He stopped at the piano, running his fingers across the surface of the keys, smoothing a reverent hand over the polished ebony finish.

"This is the Steinway you've spoken to me about, J.." Teddy said it as if he were meeting for the first time a person he'd come to admire after hearing so much about them. "Beautiful instrument. Your grandmother's piano, you say."

"Yes, this is the one I've talked with you about."

J.J. left Betsy and Duncan to go over to where Teddy was. "Another gift to her from my grandfather."

"He must have really been crazy about her. I mean he built this house where he still lives, gave her so much, never remarried after-"

"I think because it was hers, I love playing this piano even more than the one at home. This one has history, family history."

She and Teddy could usually talk about most things, but she wasn't ready to engage in a conversation about her grandparents and their relationship with him, even on a superficial level. Personal family business was for family- or reasonable facsimiles thereof- alone.

"It has character." Duncan said as he and Betsy joined them. "Like everything else around here. I can see why your mother wound up being a writer; she had a lot to draw from; I can feel it. You do, too, J. You're pretty good with the music; Teddy let me hear the CD you sent him, the one that you made at school and the others. So tell me, do you perform for private audiences?"

J.J. smiled, but mostly at the recent memory triggered by Duncan's question-slash-request. "Occasionally. In fact, I had a private audience just the other day." She nudged Teddy. "Dean Agnes Marchand."

Teddy's back straightened at the name. "Dang, just that quickly, I forgot that she lives here now."

"Yeah, she was up visiting and having lunch. Then she wound up in here with me. I played for her so well that I lulled her to sleep without knowing I did."

Betsy answered the question on Duncan's face. "Agnes Marchand was the dean of my- and J.'s mother and Aunt Pat, our- alma mater, Gresham Hall Prep for Girls which is sister school to Teddy's prep, Brookfield. She moved in here last summer when she retired. J.J.'s grandfather had the guest house renovated for her and her sister. Which reminds me, J., you need to take me out there to her. With all the help she's been to me over the years, there is no way that I can come here and not make the effort to go out and speak with her."

"Same goes for me," Teddy said. "That's one of those things she'd be calling my father up about, if I didn't make it my business to speak pay her a call while I was here."

"Play a little something for us first, J." Duncan took J.J. by the arms and attempted to move her around to the piano bench. "I want to sit in on an informal set with that future jazz sensation, J.J. Hart."

But J.J. pulled away from him and stepped around the bench. "Hold on, wait. Let's finish the tour first. I have a couple more places to show you, and I need to introduce the two of you to my grandfather; I'm already overdue on that. I thought we would have run up on him already. I also need to call Dean Marchand to let her know that you all are here and would like to see her. It would be a breach of etiquette for us to just show up out there unannounced. Decorum rules here at Briarwood. If there's still time before lunch after all of that, we can come back in here. If not, we'll come back after lunch, and I'll play for you. I promise I won't leave you hanging."

As the foursome started out of the music room, the two boys allowed to go first, Betsy pulled J.J.'s arm, keeping her back. With that same arm Betsy hugged her as she whispered next to her ear.

"You're becoming quite the lady of the house, Justine Hart. I'm very proud of you and how you carry yourself. Jen would be, too, if she were here."

When Betsy looked back into the room, it caused J.J. to turn and look in that direction, too.

Betsy winked up at her. "I think your grandmother is, as well."

Suzanne Edwards seemed to look right into her eyes from her illuminated place on the back wall.

J.J. smiled, sure that her sudden warm inner glow had to be visible to everyone.

Stephen pulled his prized classic T-Bird into the garage and shut it down, chuckling to himself as he thought of Benjamin. His favorite cousin's attraction to Agnes' sister, Belinda Smythe, was nothing less than endearing and a good thing for both of them.

They met while Agnes began working with Elizabeth in a consultant capacity when Elizabeth's school was in the proposal stage. Agnes still worked with Elizabeth, serving on her board of advisors. Belinda served as Agnes personal secretary, which afforded her and Benjamin reason, however indirect, to correspond and to come into personal contact with each other from time to time. Since then, a friendship, albeit a somewhat long distance one, had developed between them. Both of them rather quiet and shy, and Stephen suspected, a little lonely, he and Agnes got a kick out of watching Benjamin and Belinda together. She, a long time divorcee and he a widower of many years, both of them intellectuals, they seemed well suited for each other.

This time; however, he had other, more pressing concerns to which he needed to attend.

So he'd driven Benjamin out to the guest house, escorted him in, staying just long enough to be polite, and then headed right back to the main house. Justine had company, and according to Walter, there were two young men rather than the one they were expecting. Elizabeth was there with them, along with Walter and Rosa, but he was Justine's grandfather.

He entered the house through the mud room door where he hung up his coat and left his gloves. From there, his intention had been to go back to the study until summoned for lunch, but he happened to spot Walter going into the rear salon, so he went that way instead. Walter was watering the assortment of philodendron he cultivated in that room. It was the room Suzanne, a lover of greenery or all kinds, had done the same thing.

When he appeared at the door, Walter silently looked up from his work.

"And?" Stephen said.

"Miss Justine is taking her guests and Miss Elizabeth on a tour of the house. Actually, she's only showing the boys the first floor; she and Miss Elizabeth had finished with the second. I believe Miss Justine might have been looking for you to make introductions, or was at least hoping to encounter you along the way. She had no way of knowing that you had stepped out with Mr. Bach. Shall I summon her to come to you now?"

Stephen was gratified to hear Walter say that Justine had been looking for him. It would have been a huge breach of etiquette for her to have not  done so, the sort of thing Walter would have noticed and brought to his attention. The man was an even bigger stickler for propriety than he, particularly when it came to behavior at Briarwood and for some reason, especially as it related to Justine. Walter was subtle with it, but not subtle enough for him to have missed it, and although they hadn't discussed it, he thought he understood the reason behind the behavior, and it pleased him. Walter could be more objective, and therefore, more effective in it.

"No, no, Walter. I will allow Justine to continue what she is doing. After all, it was I who was not in place. Perhaps I will go and find them myself."

Walter went back to tending his plants, a tiny smile twitching at his lips. "As you wish, sir."

"You are going to take us out to the stables aren't you?" Duncan asked as J.J. pointed out the paddock to them from the window of the mud room.

"After lunch." She brushed a hand down her grandfather's jacket hanging from the hook, feeling that it was cold, then doing the same to his gloves lying on the small shelf above, making the same mental note.

It was unusual for him to leave his good leather jacket and gloves in that room. Her grandfather rode his horse almost every morning, but his riding coat and gloves were hanging in their usual spot, and they felt warm, as if they'd been there for a while. She silently concluded that the reason they hadn't run up on Pa or Benjamin in their travels was because the two of them had gone out and that Pa must have recently returned to the house; they must have only just missed him.

She joined the group still over by that window, squeezing in next to Teddy.

"Once we get out there, I know you'll want to ride," she said to him. "And so will I."

"You remember what happened the last time, J."

Betsy honed right in. "What? What happened?"

Teddy tipped a hand to J.J. "Since I'm the one who caught the devil from his uncle and his father over it, you do the honors."

J.J. held the flat of her hand to his face in dismissal. "Hmph, I seem to recall getting hemmed up pretty hard myself. My mother gave it to me pretty good, too, when she finally caught up to me. But anyway...."

She went on to explain how, at her mother's class reunion that past summer, she'd slipped off with Teddy for an early morning ride on the horses at Gresham Hall and wound up badly spraining her ankle.

"Good thing I was away at the time," Betsy said once J.J. finished her story. "If I had made the reunion, I'd have given it to you, as well, for worrying Jen like you did- and I'd have given it to your father for covering for you in it. But then, you always had that slipping off thing real bad. Every opportunity you got, you were taking off on somebody to do your own thing."

J.J. rolled her eyes at Betsy and then sighed. "If we do manage to go, Teddy, I'll be staying on the entire time. It's too cold out there for me to be trying to walk around or linger too long. I'm from the west coast. This kind of cold goes straight through me."

Betsy left the window to examine the room itself, including some of the tack hanging on the wall. "Cold or not, you two can have it. I'll find something else to do while you all do that. Maybe I'll just stay out at Dean Marchand's. I like to look at horses, and admire the different breeds, go to equestrian events, take in a race or two, but that's about the extent of it. I'm a city girl, through and through."

"I am, too," Duncan said. But, catching himself, he rushed to try and clean it up. "City, through and through, I mean. Teddy, dude, don't say nothin' "

Teddy was already grinning, obviously poised for comment. "Good save, dude, because you knew I was on my way with it. You left the door wide open for me on that one. I was headed right for you."

Betsy and J.J. were already bent over with their laughter at the unfortunate gaffe.

Duncan, his face beet red, had to laugh himself. "Forget you, Teddy. What I meant to say was, I'm from the city, I love living there, but I also love horses and riding them. I know lots of people who have them that I travel to when I need to get my equine fix on."

J.J., still giggling, wiped at her eyes. "I knew what you meant, but you did mess up royally, especially with another guy in the room. Wide open, indeed. But, I can empathize, Duncan. If I had to classify myself, I'd say I'm a whole lot city, but I'm also a little bit country. I like the peace and quiet here, on the ranch, or up in the mountains. I absolutely love horses and riding, but I can only take the rural life for so long. There has to be some civilization close by for me to be able to get to quickly. Cell phone tower, internet access, a coffee shop-  I love me some city life."

Betsy screwed up her face. "Ooh, what horrible grammar, J.J. Hart. Is that the result of public schooling?"

"That's one benefit of it." J.J. playfully patted Betsy's cheek and then snaked her neck. "Along with an enhanced global perspective and appreciation of all that is da bomb in life." She started for the door, waving her hand for the others to follow. "Let us proceed on to one of my favorite spots in this house."

Jonathan bent over the sink to splash cold water on his face to freshen up before lunch. Jennifer was at the other sink, but in the mirror, brushing her hair.

"I think when you take Marnie back to my father's, I'm going to ride with you."

With his eyes closed to keep the water out, he reached for the towel he'd placed on the counter. When he could see again, he noticed the slight pucker in his wife's forehead.

He continued patting at his face as he spoke to her reflection in the glass. "What's the matter? Hoping J.J. won't recognize you as a platinum blonde?"

Pursing her lips, she shot him her finest fish-eye. "Jonathan, it has nothing to do with J.J. or checking on her. She is just fine, I'm sure of it."

He hung the towel and went to her, placing his hands on her waist and turning her around to face him. He lifted her onto the counter and then positioned himself between her legs to be close to her. With two fingers, he smoothed her brow and pressed a kiss to her lips.

"Talk to me, Mrs. Hart. If it isn't your daughter that you're trying to get to, then what is it that you'd like to get away from?"

She dropped her telltale eyes from his as her sheepish smile slowly formed. "You know me way too well, Mr. Hart. Sometimes I think you can read my mind."

I wish, he thought to himself.

"It's Hart to Hart, darling. I can tell when something is eating at you, same as you can with me. You have been in a funk for most of the morning. You were doing all right with it at first, but it's been gradually getting worse, hasn't it?"

Keeping her eyes lowered, she nodded.

With the same two fingers he used on her forehead, he lifted her chin so that they were face to face again. "So what's up?"

"Well,  Lisa and Peter are here now. Dora and Cordelia are, too. Everything is under control. I'm not really needed here. I'd rather be at Briarwood. I haven't spent that much time with my father since I've been here. I really haven't spent that much time with J.J. on this entire trip. Not that J.J. is missing me at all right now, I'm sure. But I think I'd feel better if I were at least somewhere physically closer to them."

She raised her arms to wrap them around his neck. When she lay her head on his chest, he rested his chin on top of it and used his arms around her to bring her even closer as she continued to explain.

"Away from here, maybe I won't be thinking so much about Pat and Bill. It's beginning to get on my nerves, wondering where they might be and what's going on with them. For me, wondering about troublesome things only drums up scenarios, and the scenarios generate even more questions in my mind. Darling, simply put, I could use the diversion. It's going to be crazy tomorrow, especially if she doesn't roll in here until late tonight or early in the morning."

"How about we drop off Marnie and then go into the city, just you and I. We can do a little shopping- I know you missed getting out there this morning, have dinner, maybe catch a movie."

She shifted out from underneath him to look up into his face. "You mean you'd leave your precious child and her flirtatious girlfriend there with two randy seventeen-year-old males all evening?"

"They are seventeen, but if they know what's good for them- and I'm sure they do- they left the 'randy' part of themselves on the plane when it touched down. Besides, I'm certain my father-in-law has it covered. I get the distinct impression that even though it's his granddaughter, not his daughter this time, he's still a whole lot more paranoid than I am in that area, and thus will be that much more vigilant."

"There is Marnie to consider."

"There is Walter for backup."

She lay her head back on his chest. "An evening alone with my handsome husband would be nice. In fact, it might be just the thing I need to ease my mind."

Taking her by the hands, he stepped back and pulled her down from the counter. "Then that's what we'll do."

The intercom chimed in the bedroom and Sarah informed them that lunch was ready to be served.

As he followed Jennifer out of the room and into the hall, noting that mane of hair and the nice fit of her slacks, being in the back seat with her and that sable flashed in his mind followed by the thought that it would be even nicer to go into the city and check into a hotel with her.

But you promised that you'd stick to the plan.

A promise is a promise, Jonathan, even when you make it to yourself.

... damn.....

 

"This is a huge house, J."

Suddenly a little self conscious, J.J. wondered, as she had that previous summer when she was showing Teddy around her father's building, if she might be revealing too much about her life, if Teddy might get the impression that she was showing off. As he walked next to her, his eyes were everywhere, taking in everything. Even she could see what  fine house her grandfather had. Combined with the house she lived in, not to mention the neighborhood, and her father's headquarters, she could see how it might look as if she were bragging.

"It's not that big, there are just so many nooks and crannies and things that it seems a lot larger than it is."

Duncan was walking behind her with Betsy. "Say what you want. This is a big house."

Betsy seconded Duncan's assessment.

"They could have shot one of those old black and white movies here," Teddy said. "I can see Bette Davis or Lauren Bacall, smoking a cigarette while lounging around on the living room couch. Then Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart or somebody like that coming through the door, looking all cool in his smoking jacket, pipe in hand."

J.J. laughed. "You watch way too much old TV." But she knew exactly who and what he was talking about. They didn't make movies like those old black and whites any more, nor were there stars like those classics any more, at least not in her book.

As they approached their destination, J.J. began filling the others in on it.

"Besides the music room, this is another room where I hang out a lot when we're here. It's the solarium. It's fully climate controlled year round now, but it wasn't always. When the house was first built, it used to be shut down in winter, but when my grandfather reopened the house about twenty years ago, he had it redone so that he could use it all year. A few years ago, he had it completely redone. He told me that he did it when he saw how much I liked being in here because of all the light and the open space, which if you noticed, is in limited commodity around here."

Hearing herself, she stopped for a moment, blushing mightily. "Jeez, I sound like a curator or something. It's just a nice room. I didn't ask my grandfather to fix it up for me; he just did. I thought that was so nice of him to do that, and it makes this room that much more special to me."

When she opened the doors, she allowed her guests go in ahead of her to the sunlit, glass walled room.

"Whoa, this is sweet!" she heard Duncan exclaim. She thought he was talking about the room.

Following Betsy inside, she saw a large drop cloth had been spread on the tiled floor, and in the middle of it sat a replica of a house, a colonial much like the guest house that was now Dean Marchand's home.

Oh, my God, it's the doll house from the passage! Pa brought the doll house down.

J.J. dropped to her knees before it. In the bright light of day and out in the open, it was a huge affair, much larger than it appeared that past summer in it's poorly lit hiding place with so much else tightly stored around it. Like any other abandoned, neglected dwelling, it was in dire need of refurbishing.

"I can't say that I've ever been into dolls, but I have to tell you, this is a real nice doll house. Was it yours, J.?"

Teddy knelt down next to her, close enough for his arm to come in contact with hers, setting off the explosion of butterflies again. Fingering the little nameplate over the front door, a million questions ricocheting like errant buckshot in her mind while her stomach was doing its own thing, her voice sounded foreign to her ears.

"My mother's. It was my mother's when she was little." She pointed the little sign out to him.

"Jenny's House, okay."

"Well, it looks to me like someone's lined up a project here," Betsy said as she walked around, checking out the assorted boxes, bags, and crates stacked nearby. "Paint, paint brushes, rags, sandpaper."

She held up a tiny, cane-backed dining room chair. "Even the furniture for the rooms need touching up; there is stuff  here for that. I'm willing to bet it's meant for you and your company this weekend, J."

Pa.

Why else would the house and all that stuff to fix it up have been left in there, a place she was highly likely to come? Placed in just the right spot to get it done and on the weekend her grandfather knew she would be there with her friends, not to mention Bill's grandsons? And hadn't he asked her about that doll house when she was there that past summer?

Duncan was already rolling up his sleeves. "I love this kind of thing. You guys up for it?"

J.J. recalled Duncan's paintings in the coffee house near Aunt Pat's apartment, and that he had traveled all the way to Boston to help Teddy with designing and constructing some sets for a performance. The boy was clearly in his element.

Betsy began moving some boxed to the table. Teddy got up to assist her.

Overwhelmed with so many thoughts and emotions, J.J. said aloud, "This isn't quite what I had planned for your visit here."

Thinking it would only be Teddy joining them, she hadn't really planned for much of anything outside of what they already had lined up. His bringing Duncan with him was a surprise, but it wouldn't have interfered with any of that. This apparent project in the solarium put a new, and admittedly fun spin on things. It was hard to believe that her two macho friends, and her grown up cousin with the PhD were interested in working on an old doll house and its contents, but it delighted her that they were since she was, too.

"It'll be like working on a set," Duncan said, picking at flaking paint on the side of the house. "Only on a lot smaller scale. Looks like we're going to need to do some sanding. Maybe a little priming, too. This thing is gorgeous, J.J., so much detail. Was it handmade?"

"Yes, my great-grandfather made it. He was a master cabinet maker or carpenter, I forget which, but he was a well-known artist at it in the UK. My mother told me that he made a lot of the furniture, too. He made it in Wales and had it shipped here to her as a gift."

"Character and history," Duncan said to no one in particular as he leaned into the top of the house to better see the interior. "Even the toys."

Teddy and Betsy had taken seats at the table with the boxes of furniture. Teddy appeared to be sorting pieces after Betsy carefully pulled them out. It occurred to J.J. that Teddy was over there arranging sets, as if he were staging one of his plays. Duncan was looking through the nearby supplies.

"I don't know anything about painting, Duncan. I've never done anything like this before. I wouldn't have the first idea where to begin."

He pulled out some plastic aprons, one of which he handed to her. "Don't worry, Teddy and I do. We just got finished with a job. Here, you'll need to put this on over that sweater, and push your sleeves up so you don't get anything on them. You just follow my lead. I'll show you what to do." He turned around to call over to Teddy. "You got the furniture covered, dude?"

Teddy, working with Betsy, was deep into what he was doing. "Yeah, slide me some of that sand paper. Some prep needs to be done on some of this, too. Any scissors over there; we'll need small pieces to work with."

For a fleeting second, J.J, wished Tommy was there.

How crazy would he be going at the prospect of working on something like they were about to undertake? When Tommy's mother bought their house, Tommy, only fifteen at the time, took on most of the fix-ups on the exterior. It started with him painting the trim, replacing a few boards here and there, and ended up with him rebuilding both the front porch and the back deck. Tommy's natural talent for putting things together was clearly evident even then. Tommy would be drooling big-time over this project, even though it was only a house for dolls.

She pushed up her sleeves and stood to put the apron on. Before she knew it, Teddy was behind her, standing close enough for her feel his breath on her neck. "Let me help you. It ties in the back and-"

"Well, I see that you found my little surprise."

She felt Teddy take a subtle step back as her grandfather filled the doorway, his eyes immediately settling on her. Out of the corner of her own eye, J.J. saw Duncan rise and stand to attention. She reached around and drew Teddy from behind her, then she escorted both boys over to the door.

"I looked for you earlier, Pa, but I couldn't find you."

"Walter told me. I'd gone out for a minute."

He was trying not to be obvious about it, but she could see her grandfather giving Teddy a subtle once-over. From the way they were positioned, she couldn't see if Teddy was doing the same.

She introduced the boys, explaining about Duncan, that he lived in Pat's building, had spent the weekend with Teddy, and that he'd been invited to the wedding.

Stephen shook hands with both young men and then announced that they would all have to table working on the dollhouse because it was time for them to come to lunch.

As Stephen led the way, Betsy once again pulled J.J. back, letting the boys go ahead of them. Pulling on her sleeve, Betsy indicated with her hand that she should lean down to hear what she said.

"You know this was a set-up, don't you? This doll house thing."

"Yeah," J.J. nodded. "I've worked that out. But it's okay. If this is going to give Pa peace of mind about me and what I'm doing while the guys are here, then so be it. It's the least I can do for him after all he's done for me. Besides, I think it's going to be fun anyway."

"Kind of scary, though, how much advance thought and planning he had to put into that. Did you see all the aprons. He had figured in all of you, including Bill's grandsons."

J.J. simply smiled at that. With every visit to  Briarwood and her grandfather, it was becoming increasingly clearer to her where her mother got it from.

Not to mention Aunt Pat.

... wherever she is....

And as such, she had to wonder what direction Pa would be coming from later with Teddy. No way was the man done.

It was snowing. Not heavily, but enough to make for possible hazardous conditions with the air being so frigid. Bill took his eyes from the road just long enough to snatch a quick peek at the woman in the seat next to him. With her head back and eyes closed, she had him wondering. What was on that amazing, constantly active mind?

He figured her for being over there running down all the things she wanted to check, double-check, and check again, those last minute details that kept her from resting on Long Island and that in the end forced both of them into the car, headed back to Manhattan. She had been on and off the phone, making quick calls, asking questions and issuing directives. Pat was a stickler for things being done well and being done the way she wanted them. Everything else aside, for her it wouldn't do that in these last hours, she wasn't the one running the show, her show, in the manner that she'd scripted it.

So, it was no wonder this other thing was eating at her so deeply. Things with her weren't right, and for once, she wasn't the one who could make them so. She wasn't the writer of that particular scenario even though she was the principal player in it. But now that he was her co-star in the drama, he was determined to see her through the performance, to make sure that she put her best effort into making the most of however the unrehearsed scenes unfolded. The ball was in play, and it was he who put it there.

At the Manhattan apartment, Pat had been very quiet. Intending to run in and gather her things, she found most of what she was looking for already gone, as was Cordelia. The bags Pat said she had begun to pack were no longer in her room. In her usual anticipatory and efficient fashion, Cordelia had apparently taken care of finishing up for her. In light of that, they hadn't spent much time there. He made his one call, collected her from the study, and now on their way to the airport, headed for Maryland,

Pat seemed to be shutting down again, and that was something he couldn't let happen. Although their souls were synched, they hadn't done much talking. Actually, he had done the bulk of it, and oddly, she listened and complied without her usual comment. There was still too much that needed to be said before they arrived at the house and she waded into all the things that would keep her from doing any close examining of what was really important to them. But he couldn't do it head-on. Pat would shut him off completely if he were to go at it that way. However, there was one thing he noticed while they were in her grandmother's home that he wanted to ask her about, a possible ice breaker.

"So, what's with you and the cat, babe? I sensed a love-hate thing between you two."

"Eli?" Pat said without opening her eyes. "Little bastard. He's Carmichael's cat; he keeps her company. That's the only reason I tolerate him."

"Is it now?"

Pat opened her eyes and turned her face in his direction. When his deliberately sarcastic tone resulted in that intended effect, Bill purposely maintained his objective, sober expression.  

"Yes, it is," she said. "What makes you ask?"

"Just wondering. How'd Carmichael come by him? Was he a stray or something? Did he just show up, and she took him in?"

"Hardly."

Pat returned to her previous position, laying her head back, but looking straight ahead as she spoke. "He's a third generation resident of Hamilton House. Actually he is the great-grandson of my grandmother, Rose's cat, Elaine."

"The cats have always had 'people' names? And isn't Marnie's middle name 'Elaine'?"

She smiled a little at the question. "I never looked at it like that, but yes, I guess that's how it was. And yes, that is Marnie's middle name. Hmph, never made that connection until this minute either. But then, when you think about it, she's kind of like a little feline, too, isn't she?"

"Definitely one of those pampered Persians or something like that."

At the mention of Marnie, he noticed it when she briefly slid her hand into the coat pocket where she stuck that little envelope they found on her pillow in the bedroom, the one on top of the letter she showed him from Jennifer that they put to use right after. Pat had not; however, shared the contents of that smaller envelope with him.

"Definitely," she said, folding her hands on her lap again. "But anyway, Elaine, as I said, was my grandmother's cat. She lived to be pretty old, way after my grandmother had passed on. Carmichael had been my grandmother's personal maid and the manager of the house. She was also my grandmother's trusted friend. When Rose died, Carmichael took on Elaine along with continuing overseeing everything else, including me even after I wasn't living there full time any more.

"She said she thought Elaine was past her childbearing years, but somehow the cat got knocked up and eventually gave birth to two kittens. Two kittens, that's how old she was; what cat has a litter of two kittens? I guess that was all her withered uterus could manage to eke out at that point. Carmichael kept them both, thinking she wouldn't have to be bothered with the kitten thing since they were males. Tom and Jerry, she called them."

Gratified that he had her talking and eager to keep the line open, Bill asked, "Like the cartoon?"

"Yes, I used to like to watch that on TV when I was a kid, and she remembered that I did. Carmichael has always been goo- well, that's what she called them, the two kittens, I mean."

"In honor of you. That's nice."

"I guess you can look at it that way.  I never had much use for cats, or for animals in general- except for horses maybe. I like horses."

"You like Duke."

She smiled. "Yes, he's all right."

Right after he acquired Duke, the German Shepherd he kept in Nevada, she arrived for a visit. Patricia Hamilton who moved among the elite of New York high society- hell, who was New York high society, hadn't thought a thing about kicking off her expensive heels and getting on the floor in her designer suit with that new puppy. Now, years later, he still laughed to himself at how that dog usurped his plans for her that week. He had made many hot promises to her before her arrival, but she spent most of that time taking care of and playing with Duke, forming what had since become their lasting bond.

At the ranch, behind his walls and fences, out of sight of the rest of the world, Pat lowered her guard completely, more so than even at her own home in New York. Barefoot or in sandals, in tee shirt and jeans, she could stroll the lanes, ride the horses, or lie in the grass, all of it with the dog by her side, and nobody would guess her to be the media mogul she was; Duke certainly didn't have a clue and didn't care. Patricia Rose Hamilton, Editor-in-chief was simply the lady with the gentle hand, the hearty laugh, and the constant supply of treats. It was that quality in Pat, her ability to leave the boardroom and come all they way back down to earth, that warm heart she kept hidden underneath that guarded, somewhat steely exterior; those were the things that drew him to her, and her trust in him kept him there.

From the outside, a person might not see any of those qualities in Pat, but he did, and so did Duke. The two of them got along very well; so well that hearing that admission from her about animals mildly surprised him. But he chuckled at what she said in answer. It was pure Pat.

"Duke is big enough to be a damned horse and he's yours. When you asked me to marry you, I figured it was a package deal, him and you, William McDowell and his dog. If I wanted one, I had to accept the other, so I thought on it a minute and wound up saying to myself, 'What the hell?' "

"And you were right. Duke feels the same about you, but go on and finish telling me about the cats."

She smiled that soft smile again, easing even more his concerns about her, the immediate ones at least.

"Well, Jerry stayed pretty close to home most of the time; he was definitely a housecat. But Tom played it true to name. No matter what Carmichael did to try and keep him in, that cat would find a way to get out. He'd be gone for days. Carmichael would be worried sick when I'd call to check on her and the house. She would be fretting that it would be the one time that he didn't come back. Eventually though, Tom would always show back up, wet, tired and worn out from 'catting' around, thin from where he hadn't eaten properly, beaten up and she'd have to tend to his wounds, but he always came back.

"Both cats lived to be quite old. Jerry lived the calm, quiet life, but he passed away first. Tom was old as hell, but he kept right on doing his thing. He got out one last time and was gone so long that Carmichael had all but written him off for dead when he showed back up carrying a kitten by the scruff of its neck. It was extremely young, probably too young to be away from its mother, but it was obvious from its markings that the little thing was Tom's baby. He delivered it to Carmichael, and the very next morning Carmichael found Tom had gone on in his sleep. She kept the kitten and nursed and petted it well enough to somehow keep it alive."

"That was Eli that Tom brought to her."

"The one and same."

"Kinda odd. Tomcats don't normally fool with kittens. They're real territorial. In fact, I understand they'll even take out their own to keep the competition down."

"That's what Carmichael said, too. She said it was just plain bizarre the way it happened. An anomaly. But thinking on it, I had to figure that was Tom's way of maintaining his territory. What better way than to leave your son to watch over your turf?"

For a moment, his own late son, T.J. filled his mind. It was the "watching over your turf" comment, and for another brief moment he wondered what the boy would have thought of him remarrying, of him marrying Pat....

Quickly closing the door on that intriguing, but distracting line of thought, he returned to the subject at hand. "So how old is Eli now?"

"I don't know. He's been around a while. I'd say he's got to be over ten years old, but you can't tell it from how well he gets around. He thinks he runs the house."

"He's crazy about you."

"He likes driving me crazy. He knows I can't stand him."

"What I think," Bill said as he reached across to pry loose one of her tightly clasped hands to hold it in his own, "is that cat knows more about how you feel than you do. The entire time that you were asleep after we got back on Wednesday, he was over in the window or on the couch, watching over you. Every time you've been asleep, he's crept into whatever room you happened to be and stayed right there keeping an eye on you. Even when we went back to your old room, he was in the chair the whole time."

"I saw him. By then, I was just sick of shooing him. I told you he thinks he runs the house. He watches me to make sure I'm not doing something he doesn't want done."

"Animals know who needs them, Pat. They know who cares about them. They can sense things. If they don't like you, they don't come around you. If they love you, and they sense that you love them, despite how you might act toward them, they keep coming, they keep caring. You say you can't stand him, but he knows better."

In protest, she attempted to pull her hand loose, but the effort was a feeble one; it didn't take much for him to maintain his hold on her. "Can't fight it, Patricia. Eli knows, and so do I."

After a few quiet moments, he felt the tension ease from her fingers. She sighed and then admitted, "I do know."

She gave him his hand back to return it to the wheel. Then she reclined her seat a bit more and closed her eyes.

"Eli, you, and I, Jen, we all know," she quietly admitted.

"You sure, Patricia?"

If she answered; he didn't hear it; the car's sudden fishtailing snatched away his total attention.

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Continue on to "Promises: Part XI"